Lowboy: A Novel [NOOK Book]


Early one morning in New York City, Will Heller, a sixteen-yearold paranoid schizophrenic, gets on an uptown B train alone. Like most people he knows, Will believes the world is being destroyed by climate change; unlike most people, he's convinced he can do something about it. Unknown to his doctors, unknown to the police--unknown even to Violet Heller, his devoted mother--Will alone holds the key to the planet's salvation. To cool down the world, he has to cool down his own overheating body: to cool down his ...

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Lowboy: A Novel

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Early one morning in New York City, Will Heller, a sixteen-yearold paranoid schizophrenic, gets on an uptown B train alone. Like most people he knows, Will believes the world is being destroyed by climate change; unlike most people, he's convinced he can do something about it. Unknown to his doctors, unknown to the police--unknown even to Violet Heller, his devoted mother--Will alone holds the key to the planet's salvation. To cool down the world, he has to cool down his own overheating body: to cool down his body, he has to find one willing girl. And he already has someone in mind.

Lowboy, John Wray's third novel, tells the story of Will's fantastic and terrifying odyssey through the city's tunnels, back alleys, and streets in search of Emily Wallace, his one great hope, and of Violet Heller's desperate attempts to locate her son before psychosis claims him completely. She is joined by Ali Lateef, a missing-persons specialist, who gradually comes to discover that more is at stake than the recovery of a runaway teen: Violet--beautiful, enigmatic, and as profoundly at odds with the world as her son--harbors a secret that Lateef will discover at his own peril.

Suspenseful and comic, devastating and hopeful by turns, Lowboy is a fearless exploration of youth, sex, and violence in contemporary America, seen through one boy's haunting and extraordinary vision.

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Editorial Reviews

Michael Lindgren
…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
Charles Bock
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 tragedy—the 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
Publishers Weekly

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.
Library Journal

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.
—Lawrence Rungren

Kirkus Reviews
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.
The Barnes & Noble Review
Scientists, politicians, and environmental activists may think they know how to solve global warming, but Will Heller, the protagonist of John Wray's third novel, is certain he has the answer: he needs to have sex. The self-described "Lowboy" is, he believes, a walking furnace who is personally responsible for the melting icecaps and shifts in weather. Through coitus, he will cool his body and save the world from fiery destruction.

Lowboy, a jarring odyssey through its title character's mind, takes place in the course of one day as we follow 16-year-old Will on a subway ride through New York City's dark underbelly. Overmedicated and suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, Will has just escaped from a mental institution and is haunted by demons as he descends deeper and deeper into his personal hell (Wray, it seems, has chosen his characters' names with particular care). Will is convinced the doctors at the mental hospital (or "school," as he calls it) were the ones who "put degrees in my body." Since then, his core temperature has been responsible for raising the Mean Global Temperature. He must now make himself "an airconditioned body."

In the opening paragraphs, as Will boards the train, Wray unmistakably sets the stage for the phantasmagoric trip on which we're about to embark:

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.

The boy is pursued by Detective Ali Lateef and Will's mother, who may be just as mentally disturbed as her son. A doting parent, Violet Heller puts the "mother" in smother. She admits she might have aggravated Will's illness, "But I didn't cause it," she insists.

Whatever the reason -- genes, abuse in childhood, quick-to-medicate psychiatrists -- the fact remains that Will poses a threat to society...even if he himself doesn't see it that way. "The air is changing every single minute," he tells a subway vagrant. "It's thickening and flattening and building up speed. The air is getting hotter every day." It's up to him and him alone to cool the world.

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 sharp and light and transparent as a syringe.

The comparisons with Holden Caulfield are inevitable and, to some degree, justified; but as it progresses, Lowboy bears less of a resemblance to The Catcher in the Rye than it does I am the Cheese, Robert Cormier's classic novel that bends and flips narrative preconceptions as the story of a troubled young man's bike ride unfolds. Like Cormier, Wray keeps the reader warily on edge, forcing us to question the reality of what's being filtered through Will Heller's perspective. Is a fellow passenger on the B train really a turbaned Sikh, or could he be nothing more than a discarded newspaper and plastic bag with which Will holds imaginary conversations? What are we to make of the times when Will speaks but no one else seems to hear him? Is he, in fact, actually on a subway -- or is this tour of the under-city all in his fevered head? It's just that sense of unease which Wray uses to keep the novel always slightly tipped off-balance.

Lowboy is less successful when the story shifts away from Will, especially in the chapters describing Detective Lateef's pursuit of the teenage fugitive. Though Lateef is initially portrayed as the generic brand of quirky detective (one you'd rarely find in a squad room outside of television or literature) who likes "anagrams, acrostic poems, palindromic brainteasers and any cipher that could be broken with basic algebra," he never fully comes to life, aside from the fact that he likes to sniff photocopies and bask in "the aroma of fresh toner." He functions well as a Javert to Will's Valjean, sweating and limping after the elusive, overheated boy; but beyond that, Ali Lateef lies flat on the page.

The novel's best moments are those that allow readers to descend, like spelunkers rappelling in a dark cave, into Will's frantic, frenetic mind. Here, Wray has crafted a stream-of-consciousness narrative that grows increasingly more frightening as we start to suspect the boy's intentions may not be full of goodwill and charity to his fellow man. The hissing, shrieking subway tunnels reflect the cluttered, broken synapses of Will's "cramped and claustrophobic brain." Yet, even in his madness, there is the beauty of poetry:

He pictured [the train] late at night, following its ghost through its melancholy circuit, empty as the shell of a cicada. The thought of it made him lightheaded. He imagined the world that way, carbonized and disemboweled by fire, brittle and egglike, cycling through its orbit like an automated car. No more arclights, no more sidings, no more stations. No more passengers. His eyes tipped backward in their sockets and he stared into the dead starcluttered future. He was part of the future but only as a wisp of stellar gas. No life anywhere to speak of. No tunnel any longer and no hurry, no calling, no need for any kind of sacrifice. Only space and knowledge without end.

There is a certain amount of heartbreak at work alongside Will's messianic complex. From the opening scene of a boy getting on a subway train to the novel's final, shattering sentence, Wray has crafted a story of global proportions set in the confines of one person's mind. As readers, we both fear and fear for Will as he moves "through a world transfigured and redeemed by sacrifice." --David Abrams

David Abrams's stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, and The Missouri Review. He's currently at work on a novel based in part on his experiences while deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429914536
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 3/3/2009
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 506,744
  • File size: 265 KB

Meet the Author

John Wray is the author of two critically acclaimed novels, The Right Hand of Sleep and Canaan's Tongue. He was named one of Granta magazine's Best of Young American Novelists in 2007. The recipient of a Whiting Award, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.

John Wray is the author of critically acclaimed novels including Lowboy, The Right Hand of Sleep and Canaan's Tongue. He was named one of Granta magazine's Best of Young American Novelists in 2007. The recipient of a Whiting Award, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 15 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 30, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A Tremendous Book About A Schizophrenic Adolescent

    This is a brilliant book about a schizophrenic adolescent who has run away from a psychiatric facility. A detective and his mother are looking for him. The chapters are juxtaposed between those from his voice and perspective and those from the voice and perspective of his mother and the detective.

    I have never read a book that so accurately gets into the mind of a schizophrenic. As a clinical social worker who often works with the seriously and chronically mentally ill, I can say with surety that John Wray gets it.

    The book is mesmerizing and difficult to put down. Lowboy, nickname for the protagonist, loves subways and he is riding underneath the bowels of Manhattan trying to keep one step ahead for the real and imagined enemies that are following him. Meanwhile, as his mother and the detective search for him, they are developing a relationship of their own.

    I am not a fast reader but I read this book in two days and bought three more copies to give to friends. It is a rare and wonderful find. John Wray's writing is brilliant.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 19, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A wonderful dark tale of family, imagination, and urban mythology.

    A fairly quick but still thought-provoking read, Lowboy is part family drama, part exploration of mental illness and subjective reality, and part examination of New York City - in particular, its subway system - as a layered and mysterious breeding ground for impossible myths that intrude upon the real world.

    There are a lot of critics, writing teachers, and others who complain about "unreliable narrators" especially when it comes to the mentally ill, and this book is an excellent example of why those complaints shouldn't be taken too seriously. There are three central characters in this book, and none of their perceptions of reality can really be trusted as objective, though there are of course varying degrees. But the conflicting and yet overlapping worlds these characters live in - and the ability of the city itself to ill in the gaps and make any perception "true" - is fascinating to watch as the story unfolds.

    Anyone looking for more technical or historically accurate portrayals of the underground should probably look elsewhere, because while much of this book takes place in the tunnels underneath NYC, it's much more the subway system of urban myth than one of reality, with some additions of Wray's own such as a non-existent underground river running across Manhattan. But because of its very strong connections to the true atmosphere of the place the book has a way of making even the more improbable underground scenes feel like potential everyday events.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 24, 2012

    I will admit that at times this story can get weird and a bit co

    I will admit that at times this story can get weird and a bit confusing, but you should not let that stop you from reading such a great book. I'm just a high school student, and I thought this book was wonderfully written. I picked up this book because I thought it was very interesting and different that the main character has schizophrenia, and I wanted to see how an author would develop such a character. I think Wray did a great job on this book. The story is truly unique and even though that Will's character starts to lose a bit of his sanity as the story progresses, I have to say that I fell in love with the character Will; the author really does a great job at telling the story of a runaway schizophrenic. This book is so good that it actually remains one of my favorite story. Don't let the bad reviews keep you away.

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  • Posted May 6, 2010


    dark, depressing and sad. gives insight to mental illness and the toll it takes on family, society and the person themselves.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 5, 2010

    Profoundly Disappointing Page-Turner

    I so wanted to love this book. I wanted it all the way to the end. And yet when I arrived my gut said, "I told you so."

    There are so many things to recommend the novel, I'll list them before saying anything else. First of all, the writing is excellent. The characters are also fantastic; it's hard to say which I liked best. Wray's depiction of a mind in the grip of mental illness (particulars left unnamed to avoid spoilers) is impressive. And, finally, Wray paints the landscape underneath New York City as beautifully as does Woody Allen aboveground. Truly, he's made a valentine to the NYC subway system.

    Unfortunately, the "big secret" revealed at the end was no surprise to me: the hints had felt so heavy-handed, I'd guessed it at least a third of the way through. In retrospect, then, the pace is annoyingly slow. Finally, Wray's choice for the protagonist's obsession is profoundly disappointing: it dates the novel in such a way that the obsession will soon acquire an interpretation that seems unintended. It already feels "so last decade"!

    All that said, if you like discovering talented new writers, this book might be for you. A very quick read, it will give you a taste of a new author whose work may be well worth pursuing.

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  • Posted January 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    An interesting idea

    Interesting book. The story of a schizophrenic 16 year old boy, who escapes from his 'school' (hospital ward) and takes to the subways of New York City to do what he needs to do. That is to stop global warming!

    The story read fairly easily, written in a stream of consciousness style that fit Lowboy's thought processes. Unfortunately, by the last third of the story, it became tedious and the plot lost stem. There is mention of a major plot twist toward the end, so I kept reading. Boy, was I underwhelmed! The twist had very little to do with any plot development and was not worth the wait.

    Now this is not to say the whole experience was tedious. Far from it. Lowboy's travels from early home life, the onset of his mental illness and the circumstances surrounding his hospital confinement were done very well. It just seemed the story bogged down toward the end.

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  • Posted March 26, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A journey through a city and the mind of a troubled teenager

    Reading a book that places you in the mind of a schizophrenic can be a disturbing experience. Particularly when done with skill and subtlety. Even more so when it isn't to dramatize mental disturbance so much as to dramatize the world around the mentally disturbed.

    Wray's Lowboy is a story of a teenage schizophrenic as he is pursued by an emotionally isolated detective, and his bizarrely possessive mother. Lowboy's name is derived from two facts. First, his mental illness and the medications he takes for them suppress his sense of aliveness. Second, he has a particular fascination with the subway system. In fact, he barely surfaces, a them I will touch upon below.

    The story begins with Lowboy just released from his mental institute - he is off his meds and riding the train, convinced that he has to fulfill a mission: the world is set for destruction from global warming within 24 hours. Lowboy's idea of what he must do to save the world becomes the dramatic lynchpin of the story, and to say what it is would deny the reader of subtly unfolded plot point that doesn't become shocking until it's almost too late.

    Wray handles narrative shifts from the point of view of lucid characters, such as the detective on his case, to the wobbly subjectivity of Lowboy's mother, to Lowboy's askew yet insightful view of the world through schizophrenic eyes. It takes skill and finesse to tell the tale of a mad teengager from both outside and within his perspective without taking easy bait of dramatics.

    A fascinating device used by Wray is the juxtaposition of the world of the subway to the street level world. Interestingly, Lowboy is safest in the subway, whereas the only harm that befalls him takes place on the rare occasion that he emerges. I think it's fair to say that Wray wants to embed a moral here: though we relegate the disturbed to the submerged world of a major city, it might be the case that they are more civilized and gentle than the sane general population. It would be an exaggeration to say that this is Wray's main point, but nonetheless, it is a powerful sub-theme that permeates the mood of the story.

    Wray also gives us four wonderful characters. Besides Lowyboy, there is the hard to pin down mother as well as the righteous yet just as difficult to pin down detective. Marvelously, each is hard to get a hold of because of the polar opposites they occupy: mentally unstable vs. mentally rigorous. Last, Wray's great character is New York City itself - Wray allows the city to unfold through the character's various observations as well as in conveying small details, such as during a pursuit on foot on the West Side of Manhattan. The story of Lowboy would be less successful without this city looming in the background.

    In all, Wray has possibly given us a modern classic.

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