From the Publisher
“The novel has a thriller-like pace, and Wray keeps us riveted and guessing, finding chilling rhetorical and pictorial equivalents for Will’s uniquely dysfunctional perspective . . . The suspense is expertly maintained, straight through the novel’s dreamlike climactic encounter and heart-wrenching final paragraph. The opening pages recall Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, but the denouement and haunting aftertaste may make the stunned reader whisper “Dostoevsky.” Yes, it really is that good.” —Kirkus (starred)
“John Wray is less interested in Lowboy’s picaresque circuits than in his mental circuits, whose damaged condition is brilliantly, compassionately evoked in the novel . . . Wray is never boring, largely because he has an uncanny talent for ventriloquism, and he seems to know, with unerring authority, how to select and make eloquent the details of Lowboy’s illness . . . What is impressive about the book is its control, and its humane comprehension of radical otherness . . . Lowboy is exceptionally tender and acute . . . John Wray is a daring young writer.” —James Wood, The New Yorker
“Lowboy is uncompromising, gripping and generally excellent . . . One of the novel’s many pleasures is just going along: putting yourself fully in the hands of the story and its author, being drawn in, gradually immersed, making the connections . . . By the time it all falls into place, the reader is long hooked and turning back is not an option . . . This is a meticulously constructed novel, immensely satisfying in the perfect, precise beat of its plot . . . I’d be proud to be seen reading this novel on the downtown 6, or anywhere else at all.” —Charles Bock, The New York Times Book Review
“John Wray captures Lowboy almost immediately and gives him to us in intense, sharp pages.” —Alan Cheuse, NPR
“Lowboy is a smart, moving thriller, and a deeply imaginative one, too . . . [The] hurtling plot makes it the sort of book you read in a few big gulps, but its complicated teen character—at once intensely familiar and completely foreign—sticks around for days after you’re done.” —Izzy Grinspan, Time Out New York
“A breathtaking journey.” —Cathleen Medwick, O, The Oprah Magazine
“It’s everything a solid book should be: a fast fun deranged grim thoughtful romp through the minds of a devastatingly nuanced cast of characters . . . The last 100 pages of Lowboy are a marvelous, unpredictable sprint. This is the sort of novel that you brew coffee at midnight to finish. It demands your attention, despite the duties of the next day. It demands the kind of singular purpose Wray might just be warning us about.” —Joshua Mohr, The Rumpus
“A mostly masterful fictional study of human relationships in the shadow of insanity . . . In Lowboy’s fragilely constructed, all-fantasies-realized universe, every chapter ends with a bang, and the final one is no exception.” —Todd Dills, Time Out Chicago
“You’ll tear through the pages . . . A lip-biting thriller to the finish.” —Sarah Z. Wexler, Marie Claire
“[Wray] succeeds with a brisk plot and odd moments of humor. The story’s final grimness is tough, but it’s hard not to admire this bullet train of a book for its chilling power.” —Stacey Levine, Bookforum
“Wray is an obviously gifted writer, who treatment of Will is a tour de force of empathy, style, and imagination.” —Booklist
“John Wray’s Lowboy is a psychotic, subterranean, environmentally conscious, coming-of-age novel. It is also an affecting and affectionate love letter to New York. Lowboy is John Wray at his highest.”—Nathan Englander, author of Ministry of Special Cases
“Through the windows of John Wray's rumbling express, we catch sight of the deep darkness that lives inside the human psyche. Lowboy is a riveting and disturbing ride, illuminating one adolescent boy's shadowy underground, and giving us glimpses of our own as well.” —Colson Whitehead, author of Apex Hides the Hurt
“America's most original young writer has given us a book for the ages. Compelling, compassionate, and deeply unsettling, Lowboy introduces us to the brilliant sixteen-year-old Will Heller, a hero as three-dimensional as any in recent fiction, a Holden Caulfield for our troubled times.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan
“Wray’s captivating third novel drifts between psychological realities while exploring the narrative poetics of schizophrenia. . . . Wray deploys brilliant hallucinatory visuals, including chilling descriptions of the subway system and an imaginary river flowing beneath Manhattan. In his previous works, Wray has shown that he’s not a stranger to dark themes, and with this tightly wound novel, he reaches new heights.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)
“Wray presents a powerful and vivid portrait of Will's mental state, believably entering into his apocalyptic vision of the world.” —Library Journal
“Lowboy sucks you into the tunnels under NY and doesn't let you go until its perfect ending. Wray effortlessly portrays the cracked and distorted mind of his teenage hero. What a beguiling novel.” —Tim Pears, author of In The Place of Fallen Leaves
“Comparisons to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye or Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower are inevitable.” —Karen E. Brooks-Reese, School Library Journal
“Lowboy is a brilliant and gusty performance . . . It expresses its meanings in hallucinated events that seem to vibrate on the page.” —Mark Shechner, The Buffalo News
“John Wray’s third novel, one of the most anticipated books of the spring, has the makings of an American classic. Lowboy also represents Wray’s arrival as a major author.” —Andrew Ervin, The Miami Herald
“A fast-paced thriller . . . This virtuosic novel . . . is a masterpiece of aural description.” —Laurence Lowe, GQ
“Lowboy is haunting and uncomfortable, in the best way possible—it’s a pleasure to read.” —Fernanda Diaz, Flavorwire
“John Wray displays an impressive command of both suspense and tragedy.” —The Week
“The book casts a spell . . .Wray’s prose . . . is full of dreamlike images and startling similes.” —Taylor Antrim, The Daily Beast
“The novel moves seamlessly . . . This kind of pacing is the stuff we crave (and we think you will, too)—the kind that draws you in so unawares that before you know it, it’s past midnight and you’re down to the last page.” —Anne, Amazon.com
“[Wray’s] third novel, Lowboy, is his best yet . . . Lowboy is told in a series of impressionistic flashes . . . and it moves with extremely confident speed to its heart-wrenching conclusion.” —Steve Donoghue, The OLM Blog, Open Letters
“Wray’s writing is tremendously smart and perceptive.” —Alison Hallett, The Portland Mercury
“Occasionally comical and consistently tragic, Lowboy is an engaging novel with a difficult subject.” —Mark Flanagan, About.com
“[Lowboy is] truly remarkable!” —Leah Taylor, Flavorwire
“Wray’s breakthrough novel . . . will likely be filed alongside the work of his bestselling Brooklyn contemporaries. Lowboy’s meticulous mapping of metropolitan myth recalls Paul Auster’s City of Glass and nods to the genre tics of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn . . . This poetic, stirringly strange novel offers an empathic reminder that, for many, the light at the end of the tunnel can be taken for a harbinger of doom.” —Akiva Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times
“Wray captures Lowboy almost immediately and gives him to us in intense, sharp pages that burst in our minds as we read . . . When you’re reading Lowboy you know, in the hands of its talented young creator, that it’s certainly the best thing.” —Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune
“Strange and splendid . . . What makes Lowboy extraordinary is its rapt conviction, not the cool manipulation of plot devices.” —Craig Seligman, Bloomberg.com
“John Wray’s latest novel, Lowboy, is a compelling tale that captures the foreign internal and external landscapes of a teenager with mental illness . . . Wray depicts Will’s descent into both the subway system and mental illness in clear, glittering prose . . . John Wray’s writing itself is like a blessing, and reading Lowboy, while not a religious experience, is perhaps as close as a person can come to experiencing the mix of poignant and desperate emotions and actions that come together in a teenager with mental illness.”—Doug Robins, Sacramento Book Review
“John Wray’s prose is at once spare and powerful, comic and profound, and as his protagonist’s fate unfolds, the suspense rises until the very last line.” —Sandra Mangan, The Evening News
“Wray has created a novel that is rich in characters and insights. You may be able to finish it in half a day, but William’s view of the world will almost certainly stay with you for longer.” —Marcel Thee, Jarkarta Globe
“[Lowboy] is weird and horribly sad, but balanced and completely believable. [It] will leave a gnawing pain in your stomach, like hunger or fear or the feeling that he’s got it all right.” —Micah Ling, Keyhole
“Dizzyingly seductive . . . Making your central character deeply insane is, of course, a risky and ambitious trick, but Wray carries it off with a fluid, inventive style that rises at times to a frightening pitch.” —Michael Lindgren, The Washington Post
“Wray’s pacing is superb . . . [and his] writing shines . . . This is a fine novel by a talented writer.” —Gordon Houser, The Wichita Eagle
“Wray spins out an increasingly suspenseful, psychologically astute narrative, perfectly pitching the voice to accommodate each character’s particular motivations.” —Eric Liebetrau, Paste Magazine
“Lowboy is an incredibly competent novel from a young, clearly passionate writer . . . Wray deposits moments of exposition at key points in his apparent madcap narrative, showing the careful planning and loving consideration of a first-rate writing talent. His prose flies along with the unstoppable force of a subway train, but he can still make me pause and wring my heart out over poor Lowboy.” —Jillian J. Goodman, The Harvard Crimson
“John Wray handles it all masterfully in this odd story [that is] part sci-fi parable, part mental health drama, part love story.” —Ralph Greco, Jr., Short and Sweet NYC blog
“Masterful . . . ‘Lowboy’ is at its best at its most unflinching. Like Ken Kesey, Wray has a keen ear for the language of madness—the scripts, the shrinks, the straightjackets and the electric shocks.” —Matthew Shaer, The San Francisco Chronicle
…dizzyingly seductive …Making your central character deeply insane is, of course, a risky and ambitious trick, but Wray carries it off with a fluid, inventive style that rises at times to a frightening pitch. Lowboy is an amplified hero for our times
The Washington Post
This is a meticulously constructed novel, immensely satisfying in the perfect, precise beat of its plot. Wray, however, has larger goals than a thrill ride. The book's core is a nexus of tragedythe tragedy of a 17-year-old girl who, though she knows better, might do anything for the boy she loves; the tragedy of a mother whose life has been devoted to her son, yet who is incapable of helping him and who just may have been the source of his troubles; the tragedy of a middle-aged man caught between protecting the public and helping a parent; and finally, ultimately, the tragedy of a bright and beautiful teenager who not only must deal with all the confusions and pressures of being 16, but who, through no fault of his own, is not stable enough to be able to purchase a cupcake without confrontation. I'd be proud to be seen reading this novel on the downtown 6, or anywhere else at all.
The New York Times
Wray's captivating third novel drifts between psychological realities while exploring the narrative poetics of schizophrenia. The story centers on Will Heller, a 16-year-old New Yorker who has stopped taking his antipsychotic medication and wandered away from the mental hospital into the subway tunnels believing that the world will end within a few hours and that only he can save it. It's a novel that defies easy categorization, although in one sense it's a mystery, as a detective, Lateef, is on the case, assisted by Will's troubled mother, Violet. As Lateef tracks Will and gains some startling insight into Violet, Wray deploys brilliant hallucinatory visuals, including chilling descriptions of the subway system and an imaginary river flowing beneath Manhattan. In his previous works, Wray has shown that he's not a stranger to dark themes, and with this tightly wound novel, he reaches new heights. (Mar.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Will Heller, aka Lowboy, is a brilliant but troubled 16-year-old paranoid schizophrenic in New York City. Recently escaped from a mental hospital and obsessed with the notion that the world is about to be destroyed by global warming, he boards the subway one morning seeking to save the world in the only way he believes it can be-by having sex with a woman. He attempts to locate former girlfriend Emily Wallace, whom he has not seen since he pushed her onto the subway tracks a year earlier, the act that led to his stay in a mental hospital. Throughout his daylong adventures in the tunnels and streets, he is pursued by police detective Ali Lateef and his mother, Violet, a woman with her own secrets, who seek to bring him home before he harms himself or others. Their growing relationship provides both a parallel and a counterpoint to that of Will and Emily. Wray presents a powerful and vivid portrait of Will's mental state, believably entering into his apocalyptic vision of the world. Recommended for public libraries.
A teenaged paranoid schizophrenic risks his fragmenting grasp of reality in a quixotic attempt to save a world threatened by global warming, in Whiting Award winner Wray's deeply disturbing third novel. As in Wray's previous books (Canaan's Tongue, 2005, etc.), this one is constructed from several interconnected stories. The narrative is occupied with three searches. The primary one is that of 16-year-old Will Heller, who walks out of a mental hospital and into the New York subway system, en route to a desired reunion with the former schoolmate, Emily Wallace, who was both his prospective lover and a presumably accidental victim of Will's tendency to succumb to uncontrollable violence. The sources of such instability may lie in undisclosed experiences of sexual abuse or elsewhere in Will's troubled relationship with his Austrian-born mother Yda (he calls her "Violet"), whose search through her own past adds both explanatory exposition and subtle misdirection, as the reader struggles to comprehend Will's belief that "cooling" his own virginal body can avert a coming worldwide holocaust. The addled viewpoints of Will and Violet are challenged, and to some extent explained by the investigations of Ali Lateef, a weary SCM (Special Category Missings) police detective who senses that finding Will before he harms himself or others requires understanding the mysteries in Violet's occluded past. The novel has a thriller-like pace, and Wray keeps us riveted and guessing, finding chilling rhetorical and pictorial equivalents for Will's uniquely dysfunctional perspective (e.g., as he watches Emily approach: "A green girlshaped pillar rose through the veins of his retina like ivy twining through achain-link fence . . . Her features came apart like knitting"). The suspense is expertly maintained, straight through the novel's dreamlike climactic encounter and heart-wrenching final paragraph. The opening pages recall Salinger's Holden Caulfield, but the denouement and haunting aftertaste may make the stunned reader whisper "Dostoevsky." Yes, it really is that good.
Read an Excerpt
By John Wray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2009 John Wray
All rights reserved.
On November 11 Lowboy ran to catch a train. People were in his way but he was careful not to touch them. He ran up the platform's corrugated yellow lip and kept his eyes on the train's cab, commanding it to wait. The doors had closed already but they opened when he kicked them. He couldn't help but take that as a sign.
He got on board the train and laughed. Signs and tells were all around him. The floor was shivering and ticking beneath his feet and the bricktiled arches above the train beat the murmurings of the crowd into copper and aluminum foil. Every seat in the car had a person in it. Notes of music rang out as the doors closed behind him: C# first, then A. Sharp against both ears, like the tip of a pencil. He turned and pressed his face against the glass.
Skull & Bones, his state-appointed enemies, were forcing their way headfirst up the platform. Skull was a skinny milkfaced man, not much to look at, but Bones was the size of a MetroCard booth. They moved like policemen in a silent movie, as though their shoes were too big for their feet. No one stood aside for them. Lowboy smiled as he watched them stumbling toward him: he felt his fear falling away with each ridiculous step they took. I'll have to think of something else to call them now, he thought. Short & Sweet. Before & After. Bridge & Tunnel.
Bones saw him first and started pounding on the doors. Spit flew noiselessly from his mouth against the scuffed and greasy glass. The train lurched then stopped then lurched forward again. Lowboy gave Bones his village idiot smile, puckering his lips and blinking, and solemnly held up his middle finger. Skull was running now, struggling to keep even with the doors, moving his arms in slow emphatic circles. Bones was shouting something at the conductor. Lowboy whistled the door-closing theme at them and shrugged. C# to A, C# to A. The simplest, sweetest melody in the world.
Everyone in the car would later agree that the boy seemed in very high spirits. He was late for something, by the look of him, but he carried himself with authority and calm. He was making an effort to seem older than he was. His clothes fit him badly, hanging apologetically from his body, but because he was blue-eyed and unassuming he caused nobody concern. They watched him for a while, glancing at him whenever his back was turned, the way people look at one another on the subway. What's a boy like that doing, a few of them wondered, dressed in such hideous clothes?
The train fit into the tunnel perfectly. It slipped into the tunnel like a hand into a pocket and closed over Lowboy's body and held him still. He kept his right cheek pressed against the glass and felt the air and guttered bedrock passing. I'm on a train, he thought. Skull & Bones aren't on it. I'm taking the local uptown.
The climate in the car was temperate as always, hovering comfortably between 62 and 68 degrees. Its vulcanized rubber doorjambs allowed no draft to enter. Its suspension system, ribbonpressed butterfly shocks manufactured in St. Louis, Missouri, kept the pitching and the jarring to a minimum. Lowboy listened to the sound of the wheels, to the squealing of the housings at the railheads and the bends, to the train's manifold and particulate elements functioning effortlessly in concert. Welcoming, familiar, almost sentimental sounds. His thoughts fell slackly into place. Even his cramped and claustrophobic brain felt a measure of affection for the tunnel. It was his skull that held him captive, after all, not the tunnel or the passengers or the train. I'm a prisoner of my own brainpan, he thought. Hostage of my limbic system. There's no way out for me but through my nose.
I can make jokes again, Lowboy thought. Stupid jokes but never mind. I never could have made jokes yesterday.
Lowboy was five foot ten and weighed 150 pounds exactly. His hair was parted on the left. Most things that happened didn't bother him at all, but others got inside of him and stuck: nothing to do then but cough them up. He had a list of favorite things that he took out whenever there was a setback, ticking them off in order like charms on a bracelet. He recited the first eight from memory:
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
His father had taken him snowboarding once, in the Poconos. The Poconos and the beach at Breezy Point were items nine and ten. His skin turned dark brown in the summer, like an Indian's or a surfer's, but now it was white as a dead body's from all the time he'd spent away.
Lowboy stared down at his deadlooking arms. He pressed his right palm hard against the glass. He came from a long line of soldiers, and was secretly a soldier himself, but he'd sworn on his father's grave that he would never go to war. Once he'd almost killed someone with just his two bare hands.
The tunnel straightened itself without any sign of effort and the rails and wheels and couplings went quiet. Lowboy decided to think about his mother. His mother was blond, like a girl on a billboard, but she was already over thirty-eight years old. She painted eyes and lips on mannequins for Saks and Bergdorf Goodman. She painted things on mannequins no one would ever see. Once he'd asked about the nipples and she'd laughed into her fist and changed the subject. On April 15 she would turn thirty-nine unless the rules changed or he'd miscounted or she died. He was closer to her house now than he'd been in eighteen months. He had these directions: transfer at Columbus Circle, wait, then six stops close together on the C. That's all it was. But he would never see his mother's house again.
* * *
Slowly and carefully, with studied precision, he shifted his attention toward the train. Trains were easier to consider. There were thousands of them in the tunnel, pushing ghost trains of compressed air ahead of them, and every single one of them had a purpose. The train he was on was bound for Bedford Park Boulevard. Its coat-of-arms was a B in Helvetica type, rampant against a bright orange escutcheon. The train to his grandfather's house had that same color: the color of wax fruit, of sunsets painted on velvet, of light through half-closed eyelids at the beach. William of Orange, he thought, giving himself over to the dream of it. William of Orange is my name. He closed his eyes and passed a hand over his face and pictured himself strolling the grounds of Windsor Castle. It was pleasantly cool there under the boxcut trees. He saw dark, paneled corridors and dust-covered paintings, high ruffled collars and canopied beds. He saw a portrait of himself in a mink pillbox hat. He saw his mother in the kitchen, frying onions and garlic in butter. Her face was the color of soap. He bit down hard on his lip and forced his eyes back open.
A self-conscious silence prevailed in the car. Lowboy noticed it at once. The passengers were studying him closely, taking note of his scuffed Velcro sneakers, his corduroy pants, his misbuttoned shirt, and his immaculately parted yellow hair. In the glass he saw their puzzled looks reflected. They think I'm on a date, he thought. They think I'm on a field trip. If they only knew.
"I'm William of Orange," said Lowboy. He turned around so he could see them better. "Has anybody got a cigarette?"
The silence got thicker. Lowboy wondered whether anyone had heard him. Sometimes it happened that he spoke perfectly clearly, taking pains with each word, and no one paid him any mind at all. In fact it happened often. But on that day, on that particular morning, he was undeniable. On that particular morning he was at his best.
* * *
A man to his left sat up and cleared his throat. "Truant," the man said, as if in answer to a question.
"Excuse me?" said Lowboy.
"You're a truant?" the man said. He spoke the sentence like a piece of music.
Lowboy squinted at him. A dignified man with an elegant wedge-shaped beard and polished shoes. His face and his beard were exactly the same color. He sat very correctly, with his knees pressed together and his hands in his lap. His pants were white and sharply creased and his green leather jacket had a row of tiny footballs where its buttons should have been. His hair was bound up in an orange turban. He looked stately and unflappable and wise.
"I can't be a truant," said Lowboy. "They've already kicked me out of school."
"Is that so," the man said severely. "What for?"
Lowboy took his time answering. "It was a special sort of school," he said finally. "Progressive. They sent me home for good behavior."
"I can't hear you," said the man. He shook his head thoughtfully, letting his thin mouth hang open, then patted the seat next to him. "What did you say?"
Lowboy stared down at the empty seat. It had happened again, he decided. He'd been moving his lips without actually speaking. He stepped forward and repeated himself.
"Is that so," said the man. He heaved a gracious sigh. "You aren't coming out of prison?"
"You're a Sikh," Lowboy said.
The man's eyes opened wide, as though the Sikhs were a forgotten race. "It must be a very good school, to teach you that!"
Lowboy took hold of the crosspole and let himself hang forward. There was something melodramatic about the Sikh. Something contrived. His skin lightened slightly where his face met his turban, and the hair behind his ears was platinum blond. "I read about you in the library," Lowboy said. "I know all about you Sikhs."
They were coming up to the next station. First came the slight falling back of the tunnel, then the lights, then the noise, then the change in his body. His left side got light and his right side got heavy and he had to hold on to the pole with all his strength. The fact that he'd met a Sikh first, out of everyone in the tunnel, signified something without question but its meaning refused to come clear to him. I'll think about him when we stop, Lowboy said to himself. In a little while I'll think about him. Then I'll know.
The platform when it came was narrow and neglected-looking and much less crowded than the one before had been. He'd expected to find everyone waiting for him — his mother, Dr. Kopeck, Dr. Prekopp, Skull & Bones — but there was no one on the platform that he knew. The doors slid open and closed on nothing.
"The capital of the Sikhs is the city of Amritsar," Lowboy said as the C# and A sounded. His head was clear again but he still wanted to smoke. "Amritsar is in Punjab. Sikhs believe in reincarnation, like Hindus, but in a single god, like Muslims. A baptized Sikh never cuts his hair or beard."
"A fine school." The Sikh smiled and nodded. "An extraordinary school."
"I need a cigarette. Let me have a cigarette, please."
The Sikh shook his brown face merrily.
"The hell with this," said Lowboy.
The train gave a lazy twitch and started rolling. Both seats on the Sikh's right side were empty. Lowboy sat down in the farther one, mindful of the Sikh's bony elbow and his legs in their pressed linen pants. He took a deep breath. It was reckless to get close to another body just then, when everything was so new and overwhelming, but the empty seat between them made it possible. It was all right to sit down and have a talk.
He checked to see who else was listening. No one was.
* * *
"The Sikh religion is less than seventy years old," Lowboy said. His words fluttered before him in the air.
The Sikh pursed his lips and bunched his face together. "That is not so," he said, enunciating each word very clearly. "That is not so. I'm sorry."
Lowboy put his hand on the seat between them, where the Sikh's hand had just been. It was still slightly warm. "Can you say definitely that it's older than that?" he said. He drummed against the plastic with his fingers. "You're not seventy years old."
"I can say so," the Sikh said. "I can say so absolutely."
Why does he have to say everything twice, thought Lowboy. I'm not deaf. It was enough to put him in mind of the school. The way the Sikh was looking at him now, trying hard not to seem too curious, was exactly the way the doctors did it there. He forced his eyes away, fighting back his disappointment, and found himself staring down at the Sikh's feet. They were the smallest feet he'd ever seen on a grown man. Those look like shoes a doll would wear, he thought. Sikhs are supposed to be the tallest men in Asia. He looked from the shoes to the Sikh's face, flat and pleasant and unnatural as a cake. As he did so he began to have his doubts.
Here they come, Lowboy thought, forcing his mouth and eyes shut. His throat went dry the way it always did when the first doubts hit. The train braked hard and shuddered through a junction. The air grew warmer by exactly six degrees.
"All right, then," he said cheerfully. But it wasn't all right. His voice sounded wrong to him, precious and stilted, the voice of a spoiled English lord.
"All right," he said, feeling his skin start to prickle. "It's perfectly all right, you see."
* * *
When he let his eyes open they were back inside the tunnel. There was only one tunnel in the city but it was wound and snarled together like telephone wire, threaded back on itself so it seemed to have no beginning and no end. Ouroboros was the name of the dragon that ate its own tail and the tunnel was Ouroboros also. He called it that. It seemed self-contained, a closed system, but in fact it was the opposite of closed. There were openings spaced out along its length like gills along the body of an eel, just big enough for a person to slip through. Right now the train was under Fifty-third Street. You could get off at the next station, ease your body through the turnstile, and the tunnel would carry on exactly as before. The trains would run without a single person in them.
Two men got off at the next station, glancing back over their shoulders, and a third man moved ahead to the next car. Lowboy could see the man in question through the pockmarked junction doors, a middle-aged commuter in a rumpled madras jacket, Jewish or possibly Lebanese, flipping nervously through a giltedged leather date-book. Soon the Sikh would switch cars too and that was perfectly all right. That was how you managed in the tunnel. That was how you got by. You came and sat in a row and touched arms and knees and shoes and held your breath and after a few minutes, half an hour at the most, you separated from each other for all time. It would be a mistake to take that as an insult. He'd done the same a thousand times himself.
Lowboy patted himself on the knee and reminded himself that he hadn't gotten on the train to talk to little grandfatherly men about religion. He'd gotten on the train for a reason and he knew in his heart that his reason was the best one that anyone could have. He'd been given a calling: that was what it was called. It was a matter of consequence, a matter of urgency, a matter possibly of life and death. It was as sharp and light and transparent as a syringe. If he got careless now he might lose track of his calling or confuse it with something else or even forget his calling altogether. Worst of all he might begin to have his doubts.
He turned toward the Sikh and nodded sadly.
"I get off at the next stop," he said. He coughed into his sleeve and looked around him until the people who'd been watching looked away. "Next stop!" he repeated, for the benefit of all present.
"So soon?" said the Sikh. "I haven't even asked —"
"William," said Lowboy. He gave him his bankteller's smile. "William Amritsar."
"William?" the Sikh said quaveringly. He pronounced it Well-yoom.
"But people call me Lowboy. They prefer it."
A long moment went by. "Pleased to meet you, William. My name is —"
"Because I get moody," Lowboy said, raising his voice. "Also because I like trains."
The Sikh said nothing. He looked Lowboy over and ran two birdlike fingers through his beard. Trying to make sense of me, Lowboy decided. The idea made him feel like a hermit at the top of a cliff.
"Underground trains," he said. "Subways. Low in the ground." He felt his voice go quiet. "Does that make sense to you?"
The train started braking and Lowboy got to his feet, still keeping his eyes on the Sikh. The Sikh kept motionless, propped up straight in his seat like a nearsighted little old lady on a bus.
Excerpted from Low Boy by John Wray. Copyright © 2009 John Wray. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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