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LOWBOY by John Wray Kirkus Star

LOWBOY

By John Wray

Pub Date: March 11th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-374-19416-1
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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 (Canaan’s Tongue, 2005, etc.), 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 girlshaped 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.