Author John Wray impressed me before I read a word of his work. As a publicity stunt for his previous novel, Canaan’s Tongue, Wray set off down the Mississippi River in a homemade raft. Huckleberry Finn-style. I thought, “that’s my kind of guy.” That was in 2005.
In 2007, Wray appeared in Granta’s Best Young American Novelists issue. The story that appeared in the issue was an excerpt of what would become the opening scene for his novel Lowboy. Once again, it seemed that Wray was my kind of guy. So, in 2009, I finally sat down with a John Wray novel. It turns out that he is, in fact, my kind of guy.
Lowboy begins with the titular character entering a subway car in New York City:
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 appear older than he was … 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?
Eventually, Lowboy manages to weird out almost everyone on the car, which is no small feat for frequenters of mass transportation. Lowboy is mostly oblivious to his effect on the other passengers as he tries various tricks to keep his head together. It is soon revealed that Lowboy has left a mental hospital, and he is accordingly off of his necessary medication. Lowboy’s disappearance from the hospital is sufficiently worrisome to the authorities that the police quickly become involved in locating him.
A veteran NYPD detective has been assigned to find Lowboy, and he begins by interviewing the boy’s mother at the station. The detective starts off a little brusque and ill-natured, but slowly a sort of understanding, if not friendship begins to form between the mother and policeman. As the pair travel the city trying to locate Lowboy before something bad happens, it becomes apparent that the mother is hiding something. As the history of Lowboy and his family is slowly revealed, the suspense in the novel builds.
The novel’s tension comes from the changing expectations of Lowboy as we learn more about the boy and his past. What is he capable of exactly? Is he really a threat to others (or himself) or is he an essentially harmless teen? Trying to divine the motives and future actions of someone with a mental illness can be fruitless, and I think that’s the point. Lowboy finds himself in some truly awful circumstances, places we would never want to find our own children, yet the readers sympathies are always with Lowboy. The novel goes where its protagonist takes it, which is usually wildly unpredictable. Check it out if well written and compelling fiction are your thing.
Bonus: Lucky Dog Audio Post has created a Lowboy streaming mixed tape that incorporates the old school jazz tunes referenced in the novel. Check it out. The author also gave a reading of Lowboy on a New York subway. Very cool. Check it out on the Youtube.