Will Heller is a sixteen-year-old paranoid schizophrenic experiencing a mental break. During the course of a day, Will, nicknamed Lowboy, moves through the underground sprawl of Manhattan’s subways, occasionally surfacing. As he likewise dips into and out of psychosis, he reasons, through the screaming overload of his thoughts, that losing his virginity will “cool the world,” saving it from the destruction of climate change, for “the world’s inside of me . . . just like I am inside the world.” Through the logic of his crushing illness, Will is trying to save himself.
Lowboy, John Wray’s third novel, is, as some have described it, a tweaked bildungsroman, but it is also an apocalyptic tale positioned along the narrow seam between illness and health. Will believes a tale heard in childhood: that a mythological metropolis lies below Manhattan, mirroring the one above. As Wray superimposes schizophrenia’s boggling poetics and ambiguities on the narrative, a fabulist city glitters in beautiful shards: “He looked over his shoulder at the gargantuan stainless-steel globe that divided Broadway from Central Park West, glowing so brightly in the sun that he could see it even when he closed his eyes. . . . He could make the clocks run backward, after all. He could keep the world from ending with the help of just one person.” The inversion of the city extends to the novel’s characters, many of whom have two names. A detective, Ali Lateef, was named Rufus White at birth; Will addresses his otherworldly Austrian mother as Violet, though her given name is Yda; a prostitute named Maria has the street name Secretary.
As Will searches for Emily, his former high school girlfriend, Lateef and Violet anxiously follow his trail, fearful he will harm the girl. When he finds Emily, he leads her to the crumbling, World War II–era City Hall subway station, where “vaults of red and green and coppercolored tile [arch] gravely over desolated stairwells” and where, as his illness takes hold, “the platform [is] as symmetrical as the moon . . . tiles green as tidewater, yellow as teeth. The number of steps and arches solemnly reckoned by mystics.”
The lyricism of Wray’s sentences, steered by Will’s illness and the book’s vertiginous, end-of-the-world sensibility, is bumpy and dense. A pencil hovers above paper “like a wasp.” Heavyset motorcyclists sit on their machines “like old avocados.” While riding through a tunnel, Lowboy sees “colossal shapes and glyphs and signatures. Damp concrete slathered in ciphers.” He glimpses Emily, “a green girlshaped pillar [rising] through the veins of his retina like ivy twining through a chain-link fence.”
Wray’s task amid the thickness of these sentences is to give the story space and air, and he 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.