Lowboy A Novel

John Wray




Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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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.


Praise for Lowboy

"Lowboy is uncompromising, often 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, appreciating those seeds as they bloom into the tale's developing complexity, danger and tragedy. 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. 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."—Charles Bock, The New York Times Book Review

"What ever happened to the American Man? You know, the one who bullied and swore and drank his way through novels full of cigarette smoke, big cars and red meat? The one who'd abandon his family for a prostitute, or coerce his girlfriend into a threesome, or sleep with the housekeeper after murdering his wife? What happened to all those Rabbits and Portnoys and Rojacks and Wapshots and Herzogs? And does anyone really miss them? Judging from a sampling of recent male-penned fiction, the answer is no, not really . . . Which brings us to a tale told by a schizophrenic teenager, John Wray's dizzyingly seductive Lowboy. Wray's protagonist is on the lam from a mental institution, loose among the commuters and winos and rolling thunder of the Manhattan subway. 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; despite his violence and craziness and incoherence, he is fundamentally sweet and in search of love."—Michael Lindgren, The Washington Post

"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. He uses a variety of literary techniques . . . What is impressive about the book is its control, and its humane comprehension of radical otherness. In this regard, it ideally justifies itself, as one always hopes novels will. You can imagine replying to someone who was curious about what it's like to be schizophrenic, 'Well, start with John Wray's novel.' Lowboy may often be lost to himself, but he is not lost to us. Wray knows how to induce and then manage a kind of epistemological schizophrenia in the reader, whereby we can inhabit Lowboy's groundless visions and still glimpse the ground they negate. There is a brilliant scene, like something out of Pinter, in which Lowboy is at a bakery in the Village, buying cupcakes. Emily waits for him outside. He is at the counter, and all is going reasonably well. But then his attention is caught by the bag . . . Lowboy is exceptionally tender and acute . . . John Wray is a daring young writer, highly praised for his last two novels . . . These scenes are elegantly done, and are often moving."—James Wood, The New Yorker

"[A] masterful third novel . . . The tone here is a departure for Wray . . . Lowboy is both sharper and more compressed . . . 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, San Francisco Chronicle

"John Wray, an award-winning writer you've likely never heard of and a 'junior partner' in a poker circle that includes Myla Goldberg, Colson Whitehead, and Jonathan Lethem, has managed to avoid a day job for ten years. This frees him up to pursue his dual occupations. First and foremost, he's the author, at 37, of three standout novels—two probing works that have been reductively catalogued under historical fiction, and a new one, Lowboy, about a teenage paranoid schizophrenic at large in the subway system. It may be just suspenseful and familiar enough to promote the Park Sloper to full partnership in Brooklyn's literary society . . . Lowboy, sort of a police procedural written from the fugitive's point of view, may just be Wray's Motherless Brooklyn—a long-deserved breakout from a phenomenally versatile writer who wanted to try something a little easier to swallow."—Boris Kachka, New York magazine

"Wray shows us New York through the eyes of this bright teenage schizophrenic, alternating chapters between the boy and the people who are desperately searching for him. During the approximately 24 hours the novel spans, the runaway and potentially violent boy is being pursued by his mother, Yda, and Detective Ali Lateef. Though the writing in the chapters about them is nearly as strange and splendid as in the ones about Will (Ali looks at a photograph of his quarry's face: 'A grin was fixed to the front of it like a screen around an operating table'), they develop along lines that are more conventionally noir. I don't think I've ever read a novel so volatile in mood. Wray uses his hero's disease (and something in Will really is heroic) to keep you off balance: At any moment your heart could break, or your hair could stand on end. When Will is back on the subway near the end of the book, we have no way of knowing where his life is barreling, though we know it won't be somewhere happy."—Craig Seligman, Bloomberg 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, even though the story is in many ways a conventional one in which the hero of modest means sets out into the world with an enormous task, encounters a number of obstacles, comes to some new realization about his condition and finds a degree of redemption in the end . . . Wray's genius as a storyteller lies in the fact that he recognizes that schizophrenia may well be the prevailing logic of the Twittered, Facebook-friended, RSS-fed culture around us. We can sympathize with Heller, and even love him, because he is all of us."—Andrew Ervin, The Miami Herald

"Imagine Dostoevsky in New York City, the Underground Man taking the A Train, only not hurrying home to Harlem but sneaking into abandoned stations in midtown Manhattan. That describes Will Heller, a schizophrenic 16-year-old who has gone AWOL from his school, gone off his meds—he was on Clorazil—and is out to save a world that is in the terminal stages of global warming. So radical is the warming that the world is scheduled to fry in just hours . . . Lowboy is his break from the rigors of historical research. It is a darkly introspective book, closeted and disturbing, that sees Wray trading in history for psychology . . . Lowboy is a brilliant and gutsy performance . . . At certain moments the book feels like a runaway subway car; you want it to slow down for you. But with Will Heller being chased by Violet and Ali as well as Skull and Bones, there is no slowing down. Toward the end, Lowboy moves with increasing acceleration toward some apocalyptic rendezvous with greenhouse gasses deep under the sidewalks of New York."—Mark Shechner, The Buffalo News

"In this brisk read, a schizophrenic 16-year old goes off his meds and descends into the bowels of the New York subway system, convinced the end of the world is near. Meanwhile, his mother and a detective search for him above. Dual plot tracks give Wray the chance to tell noir-inspired mystery with a trippy yet chilling twist."—Tim Swift, The Baltimore Sun

"After two masterful historical novels—The Right Hand of Sleep (2001) and Canaan's Tongue (2005)—acclaimed novelist John Wray plunges into the present with the spare, haunting story of 16-year-old paranoid schizophrenic Will Heller, a.k.a. Lowboy . . . Using mostly simple, straightforward sentences, Wray fractures the narrative in brief paragraphs—without indentations and set apart by extra space—that not only reflect his protagonist's thought processes, but eventually coalesce into something much bigger as the narrative moves toward the disturbing climax. Echoes of Dostoyevsky's Notes From the Underground reverberate throughout the novel, but Wray's talents run more toward the postmodernism of Salinger and Bellow. Always psychologically astute, Wray's razor-edged prose illuminates Will's character—a kind of hybrid of Holden Caulfield and Augie March—and ratchets up the tension as Will struggles to hold it together."—Eric Liebetrau, St. Petersburg Times

"Many novelists have tried to portray a character's madness or confusion, but few succeed in making that experience feel real and convincing. Lowboy, John Wray's third novel, is one of those few . . . The novel deftly incorporates two narratives, that of Will with his warped, fevered perspective, and a more straightforward one about Will's mother and Detective Ali Lateef as they try to find him before he does something violent, to himself or to others. That fear stems from an incident 18 months earlier, when Will pushed his girlfriend, Emily, off a subway platform. (She survived.) . . . Lowboy carries the reader along with suspense. The chapters depicting Violet and Detective Lateef's search for Lowboy read like a police procedural, while the ones presenting Lowboy's perspective leave one hoping he'll somehow find healing. Wray's pacing is superb. Describing mental illness can become labored, even boring, but he captures Lowboy's confused thoughts without judging or romanticizing him . . . Wray's writing shines . . . Lowboy moves inexorably toward a conclusion that includes a secret about Violet and an act that brings to mind another Russian novelist. This is a fine novel by a talented writer. I look forward to his next work."—Gordon Houser, The Wichita Eagle

"The protagonist of John Wray's daring third novel is on a mission that evokes the plot of Porky's, but it would be a mistake to conflate Lowboy with the rest of the genre . . . Wray handles this bizarre scenario the only way he can: By explaining as little as possible, and allowing the details of Will's bizarre mission to emerge slowly over the course of the book. As Lowboy begins, Will is riding the New York Subway, having just been released from the hospital—but not, as planned, into his mother's custody. He's set out on his own to find Emily, and it's clear off the bat that something's not right: Will manages to freak out everyone in his train car, with talk like, 'The world's going to die in 10 hours. Ten hours exactly, Grandfather. By fire.' By all rights, this book should read as utterly preposterous: Global warming? Schizophrenic sex quest? What? Wray's writing is so spare and direct, though, that the book only seems odd when you stop to think about it. Meanwhile, narrative tension is established immediately and ratcheted up to a vibrating intensity by the end of the novel, making Lowboy that rarest of books: an utterly new take on a familiar theme."—Alison Hallett, The Portland Mercury

"The book — Wray's attempt at combining art and accessibility — melds his daring narrative flourishes with the fast pace, thrills and chills of a sophisticated page turner. It's a coming-of-age tale unspooled within a modern-day, 24-hour period: A schizophrenic 16-year-old named Will goes off his meds, escapes his mental ward and finds potentially fatal purpose riding the New York subway; meanwhile, his mother and a police detective embark on a frantic search for the boy before the worst happens."—Erin Carlson, The Associated Press

"Lowboy is a smart, moving thriller, and a deeply imaginative one, too . . . Wray handles his off-kilter hero with sympathy. Lowboy's 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

"John Wray's character, in his novel Lowboy, is a schizophrenic teenager on the lam. Lowboy sees himself as having a calling, warning folks that the world is about to end in fire, and he evades capture by his mother and a police detective for a good part of a long day while riding the subway. But John Wray captures Lowboy almost immediately and gives him to us in intense, sharp pages. Wray's really good at fusing physical states and distressed mental states, as in this moment when Lowboy's companion, the high school girl, is trying to teach him about intense kissing."—Alan Cheuse, NPR

"William Heller is a 16-year-old that goes by the nickname of Lowboy, mainly because of his fondness for riding the subway. Not the most exciting of hobbies, but then again you're not a schizophrenic off his meds who believes that the world is going to end in 10 hours. Heller is such a person, so reading Lowboy is a lot more interesting than his chosen hobby might lead you to believe. John Wray, the author of Lowboy's deceptively simple prose, is giving a reading of his already acclaimed novel at Spike Hill in Williamsburg. The genius of it is that the reading ends in the bar; it begins on the L train. Interested parties should gather at the back end of the platform of the 8th Avenue and 14th Street stop. Get on board, and the reading starts. If enough of you go, you'll get a car all to yourselves. If not, well, welcome to the world of performance art. You should go."—John Coakley, Soho Journal

"A breathtaking journey through the subway tunnels of Manhattan and the subterranean fantasies of a schizophrenic teen, the eponymous Lowboy careens toward disaster as the boy, a.k.a. Will Heller, disappears into the urban netherland. A wary detective gives chase, along with 'Violet,' a mother who harbors disturbing secrets about her son. Lowboy has an apocalyptic obsession with global warming (he believes that only he can save the world), but more immediate perils reside in the twists and turns of the human psyche."—Cathleen Medwick, O, The Oprah Magazine

"You'll tear through the pages . . . A lip-biting thriller to the finish."—Sarah Z. Wexler, Marie Claire

"In his latest, versatile novelist John Wray hauntingly inhabits the paranoid schizophrenic mind of his 16-year-old protagonist, Will Heller (aka Lowboy). Convinced that he can single-handedly save the world from the fatal effects of global warming, Will embarks on a journey through the New York City subway system to find Emily Wallace, the one girl he thinks can help him. Because Will has displayed violent tendencies in the past, the pair is pursued by missing-persons detective Ali Lateef and Will's mother, Violet. Wray spins out an increasingly suspenseful, psychologically astute narrative, perfectly pitching the voice to accommodate each character's particular motivations. As the search heats up, Will's fractured mind continues to corrode his conception of reality: 'Sourceless revelations sparked and spun behind his eyelids and memories flashed like stoplights in between . . .' A final revelation about Violet is followed by the disturbing closing paragraphs, which are sure to linger long after the book is closed."—Eric Liebetrau, Paste magazine

"[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

"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

"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

"John Wray's novel, Lowboy, is about a schizophrenic teenager who has stopped taking his medication and escaped the asylum into the New York subway. The novel follows William Heller, aka 'Lowboy,' below ground and above, as he pursues what he perceives as his quest to save the world . . . Lowboy's chapters alternate with those of missing persons detective, Ali Lateef, who over the course of a single November day with the boy's mother, assembles the pieces of a puzzle that, alongside Lowboy's own narrative, gradually reveal Wray's schizophrenic narrator to be both a danger to himself and to others. Much of the novel's narration is halting and observational, mirroring Lowboy's own skewed perception of the world and the people around him . . . Lowboy is an intelligent and likable protagonist, but the reader is steadily filled with foreboding as the novel progresses. It is testament to John Wray's extensive research on mental illness that Lowboy is far more than the caricature of mental illness often presented in books and movies. The other characters in the novel similarly reveal complexities during the novel, keeping the reader surprised throughout. Occasionally comical and consistently tragic, Lowboy is an engaging novel with a difficult subject."—Mark Flanagan, About: Contemporary Literature

"Lowboy has a plan to save the Earth from global warming: He will cool the planet by losing his virginity on the New York City subway. The idea may seem far-fetched, but not to Lowboy. He is a 16-year-old schizophrenic who has recently escaped from a mental hospital. The novel, by author John Wray, is a psychological thriller that unfolds over the course of a day. Lowboy tries to carry out his plan before his mother and a detective named Ali Lateef can stop him. Vivid scenes of Lowboy's reality and psychosis play out in subway cars, tunnels and even in the underground chambers that are covered by sidewalk grates. Wray says he researched the novel 'like an overeager method actor.' He spent nearly a week in a hospital psych ward observing patients. He also did much of his writing on the subway, where he encountered many passengers living with mental illness. Wray says riding the rails and writing was not always the most pleasant experience, but it fostered a 'low-level paranoia' that helped him capture the thoughts of a schizophrenic teenager. Wray paints a multidimensional portrait of Lowboy. Delusions aside, he is a pretty normal teenager. He's awkward, funny and full of angst. Wray admits he has what he considers a rather naive hope—that after readers finish his novel, they'll have a more 'human perspective' on schizophrenia."—All Things Considered, NPR

"Will 'Lowboy' Heller, blond and blue-eyed and 16 years old, would not seem to be the most intimidating subway passenger. But Will is a paranoid schizophrenic, and on the day 'Lowboy' takes place, he is on a mission. Will believes that the only way he can stop the world from ending by global warming is to lose his virginity. Months ago, an incident with Will's best friend, Emily, led to his being institutionalized. Now, Will is determined to reunite with Emily and fulfill his plan for the world's salvation. Meanwhile, Ali Lateef of the New York Police Department and Violet, Will's mother, both of whom have troubles of their own, scour the city to find the boy before he harms himself—or someone else. Much of Lowboy takes place on the New York subway, and John Wray's kinetic descriptions of the trains' inevitable rush are the highlights of the book, making up for the relative thinness of the two adult characters. Lowboy is absorbing reading, though perhaps not for the morning commute."—Rebeccea Oppenheimer, Howard County Times

"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, 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 girl-shaped pillar rose through the veins of his retina like ivy twining through a chain-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."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Wray is an obviously gifted writer, who treatment of Will is a tour de force of empathy, style, and imagination."—Booklist

"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."—Lawrence Rungren, Library Journal

"Readers are pulled into the mind of a teenage schizophrenic in this dark and intriguing novel . . . Will [Heller] describes his experiences and the events leading up to them in a kind of organized stream-of-consciousness, revealing the inner workings of a different type of brain. Scenery and emotions alike are described with vivid imagery, allowing readers to truly experience Will's journey. While the teen is at the center of the novel, the two adults who share his story are equally engaging. They are neither absent nor infallible. Comparisons to J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye or Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower are inevitable: those drawn to damaged characters or seeking insight into a disturbed human psyche will be deeply affected by the chilling ending."—Karen E. Brooks-Reese, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Pennsylviania, School Library Journal

"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."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads




  • Lowboy Rides the Subway

    New York City commuters read from the opening pages of Lowboy.

  • John Wray reads from Lowboy

    Novelist John Wray reads a letter from his title character to his mother, written while Lowboy was spending time in a mental health facilty. Wray read at Spike Hill in Williamsburg on March 12.

  • John Wray on Leonard Lopate

    Go inside WNYC's studio and see Wray's interview with Leonard Lopate.

  • Zach Galifianakis in conversation with John Wray

    Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover, Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis, Bored to Death, Funny or Die, SNL, Youth in Revolt, Up in the Air, Comedians of Comedy) in conversation with John Wray (author of the critically acclaimed Lowboy).

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  • John Wray

  • 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
    John Wray




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