Notes from Underground

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The world will end in a matter of hours… unless Lowboy can lose his virginity.

Word is getting out about this guy John Wray and his new novel, Lowboy, which is garnering all kinds of hype—and deservedly so. 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.

Lowboy pairs readers with sixteen-year-old Will Heller, a.k.a. Lowboy, a paranoid schizophrenic off his meds and wandering through the New York City subway system. The date is November 11, and the world will end in a matter of hours because of global warming. That is, unless Lowboy can bring down his body temperature and thus cool planet Earth—and the only way to do that is to lose his virginity.

Can’t you hear Wray warping prom-night persuasions for generations to come? “Come on, baby, if we don’t screw, the world will overheat!”

One of the really smart decisions Wray made when putting Lowboy together was to rely on other narrators besides Will to tell the story. It’s worth noting that Will’s voice and thought process are not made into caricatures, and that the author rendered him with empathy and dignity; yet, even given Wray’s delicate hand with Lowboy’s psyche, a novel narrated entirely by a schizophrenic might have come to feel like an assault. The reader needs periodic respite, and more pragmatic narration, as we delve into the subterranean: underneath Manhattan in the subway system, but also under the surface of Lowboy’s mental illness.

nyc-map-centreWill’s mother Violet and police detective Ali Lateef fulfill this need. Despite their polarized motivations for wanting to locate Lowboy—Violet to ensure her son’s safety and Lateef to keep the general public protected from a schizophrenic who has shown violent tendencies in his past—Violet and Ali enter into a reluctant partnership. Their chapters anchor us in a concrete space-time and provide reliable contrast to the sometimes bemusing way Will disseminates information. Ripe with her own system of haunts, Violet describes Will’s history and the evolution of his illness to Lateef, providing the reader with essential information as it is organically transmitted from one character to another.

The novel’s plot torques to a dizzying velocity once Lowboy tracks down his old friend Emily Wallace. She is seventeen and had been Will’s closest friend prior to his institutionalization. (She played the lead role in the incident that landed Lowboy in the hospital). Emily’s motivations for reconnecting with Lowboy remain opaque, but somehow over the years she has fallen in love with Will, and even though she knows he can be dangerous, she disregards self-preservation in the name of their affinity. A stretch? Maybe. But within the pages of the novel, Emily’s decisions make sense, thanks to Wray’s deft rendering of a precocious, caustic, and rebellious teenage girl.

Lowboy and Emily end up back in the subway system. The divide between Will’s perceptions of what is happening and Emily’s reactions presage a growing disconnect and danger:

When he’d told Emily everything she looked at him and laughed. “Why are you looking at me like that?” she said. “Was I supposed to recognize the tune?”
“Tune?” he said, forcing the word out of his mouth. His voice sounded wet.

John WrayIn Lowboy’s mind, he was disclosing the story of his time and tumult in the hospital, but all Emily heard was him singing or humming or whistling. The reader never learns for sure, and it doesn’t matter: the point is that his urgency is taking on a dangerous singularity and there’s the growing sense that Emily might not make it out of the subway system alive.

The plot constricts: Will Lowboy rape her to save the world from global warming? Will Violet and Lateef make it in time to protect the children from the squeals of Will’s mental illness? And finally, with a wider scope, readers are made to wonder if any of us are safe from our own obsessions. We may not be schizophrenics steered by our illnesses and rummaging through the subway system, but we have all been guilty of putting our self-importance before the greater good.

Lowboy himself says toward the book’s end, “There has to be a reason Emily. Otherwise why this sickness. Without it there’s only running away and kissing you… There’s only poor sick Will… Thank God there was a calling… Thank God about the air.”

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.


See also: The Last Book I Loved

Joshua Mohr is the author of five novels, most recently “All This Life.” More from this author →