Underground Novel of the Year

Serious buzz is building around John Wray’s Lowboy, with comparisons to Salinger and Dostoyevsky. Is this dark and eccentric novel this spring’s sleeper hit?

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The cheering section is getting crowded for Lowboy, John Wray’s strange and magnetic third novel. Gary Shteyngart, Nathan Englander, and Colson Whitehead have contributed enthusiastic blurbs. Esquire plugged it back in December, profiling Wray, whose earlier novels are the acclaimed The Right Hand of Sleep and Canaan’s Tongue, as “one of our most astonishing and relevant young writers.” Publisher’s Weekly has weighed in with a rave, as has the New York Times, as has Kirkus, one-upping the rest: “The opening pages recall Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, but the denouement and haunting aftertaste may make the stunned reader whisper ‘Dostoyevsky.’ Yes, it really is that good.”

Will Heller, the titular Lowboy, is obsessed with temperature—his own, and that of the world around him.

Dostoyevsky! Well, I didn’t whisper anything at the end of Lowboy but I’m rooting for it, too. Amid reports on publishing’s demise (see recent, vertigo-inducing stories in Harper’s and New York magazine), a novel as proudly idiosyncratic as Lowboy feels like a fragile, underdog thing.

It’s not a crowd-pleaser. It doesn’t scream film adaptation. Lowboy could be called a coming-of-age story or a manhunt novel, but neither description captures its knotty mysteries or its eerie mood. Will Heller is the titular Lowboy, a 16-year-old paranoid schizophrenic who has gone off his meds, evaded his minders from the Bellavista Clinic, and disappeared into New York’s subway system.

Will is obsessed with temperature—his own, and that of the world around him. He knows, for instance, that the climate of a subway car hovers “between 62 and 68 degrees.” Above ground it feels much hotter (even though it’s November). “To cool down the air, I have to cool down myself first,” he says, enigmatically. Almost everything he says is enigmatic. “The world’s going to die in six hours,” Will tells a fellow passenger. “The world won’t make it past this afternoon.” And to a homeless woman on a subway platform: “I’m going to open like a flower.”

It’s clear that Will feels he has a mission, but what does he mean to do exactly? The book allows this mystery to linger, and it gains considerable tension when Will, without warning, pushes an elderly Sikh man down in a subway car. It seems he has a violent side, and a police detective named Ali Lateef is trying to track him down before he does anyone serious harm. Aiding him in this is Will’s mother Violet, but she’s a little erratic herself and seems to have secrets of her own. Lowboy is lousy with secrets, a few of which never come entirely to the surface. Did something happen between Will and his grandfather? Was Will’s mom in prison or not?

Lowboy is sometimes opaque, and yet the book casts a spell. That’s thanks to Wray’s prose, which is full of dreamlike images and startling similes. (At Bellavista, “Meds were slid between his teeth like change into a meter”; Will’s “calling…is as sharp and light and transparent as a syringe.”) Wray turns the subway system into an unsettling underworld, full of glittering tile, ancient stone ceilings and ghostly currents of air and light. “There was only one tunnel in the city but it was wound and snarled together like telephone wire, threaded back on itself so it seemed to have no beginning and no end…There were openings spaced out along its length like gills along the body of an eel, just big enough for a person to slip through.” Such descriptions exert a hypnotic pull—and a climactic chapter in the decommissioned city hall station is a showstopper. Curiously, though, Wray seems less sure of himself above ground, never accounting for why Detective Lateef and Violet are so slow to anticipate where Will is going, and muddling a chase scene in the West Village.

I think Lowboy is too dark and strange to be a breakout hit, but with all the early hype it’s received maybe I’ll be proven wrong. Here’s hoping. Publishing is on its back, and serious readers are scarce on the ground. Are editors growing less inclined toward risk-taking novels such as this one? That would be a shame. Even in straitened times, idiosyncratic literature should have its place. I didn’t love Lowboy, but days later I’m still thinking about it, which is a high enough standard for me.

Taylor Antrim is the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.