I have always had a morbid attraction to psychologically unstable characters- a penchant which I guess says more about me than the author/character in question, however, I can’t help wondering what it is that keeps us interested in the insane. It’s probably the mystery or the idea that there must be a kind of cipher somewhere to gain access to these thoughts- if only we could find it. Paranoid schizophrenia is a particularly juicy narrative nugget. You never quite know where you are with them do you?
This little intro, albeit a confessional one brings me nicely round to my latest read- John Wray’s Lowboy. This is the latest in a series of successful novels by John Wray (see The Right Hand of Sleep and Canaan’s Tongue for more details) and features a young boy called Will Heller who is very firmly in the grip of paranoid delusions on account of having gone off his meds. The reader does not yet know it (Wray takes some time to explain what’s happening) but Will has escaped not from ‘school’ but from a mental institution where he has been ever since an incident with his then girlfriend Emily took place. He thus opts for the natural heaven of the Manhattan underground (I won’t spoil it for you by explaining why- it’s a good one though). Suffice it to say that for this young teenager, it is essential that he keep himself cool…. Will’s travels in an around the world of the subway then takes on labyrinthine proportions as he takes train after train meeting a vast array of strange and interesting characters.
Wray does not just leave it there though in terms of narrative twist. He involves two other central characters who are involved in Will’s story from the get-go. First we have his unusual and difficult mother Violet- a woman who is obsessed with finding her son for reasons that become more complicated than those dependent on motherly concern. Her own weaknesses and mental instabilities unfold throughout the novel then as we are introduced to Ali Lateef- the taciturn detective charged with finding Will- a job that becomes increasingly necessary as Will’s case history unfolds. The reason for which Will was institutionalised in the first place for instance renders the situation a little more serious than a simple case of a missing and frightened young boy.
There is a lot to take in in this book. Wray manages to keep the reader guessing from the very beginning (a feature which may put some readers off as it is a little confusing) and put you straight into Will’s head – a feature which is always a winner with me in terms of keeping me engaged. I like suspense and I suspect other readers will too. What I liked most about this book though was not just the keep’em guessing trick. Lowboy, like any good read is about more than just the sum of its parts. There is something more to it that grabs you as you read it. Will’s paranoid delusions are a little disturbing alright but it is not just these that make the novel truly dark in places. I think it is in the way that Wray adds little pieces of strangeness throughout the narrative. Violet, for instance is a truly exotic creature, from her name (the name that Will gave her in a coded letter explaining his disappearance) to her accent- an element which is never really pinned down by Lateef who is mesmerized by her. She is teutonic and exotic- Germanic perhaps or from a little further East. We never really find out. Lateef too is a bit of an enigma. For a start his real name is actually Rufus White. That’s another one that is left hanging. There are many more instances of the strange and exotic in Will’s own encounters- from the mysterious and warm Sikh he meets on the train to the more mysterious ‘Skull and Bones’ he is fleeing from.
Wray’s language reflects the mental positions of each and every character throughout- from the declarative and impatient questioning of Lateef to the fragility and uncertainty of Violet. Will’s own ruminations are illustrated in phrases reflecting the certain in his tone to the panicked vulnerability of a teenager lost in his own mind. I highly recommend this one to anyone who enjoys putting themselves firmly and completely in the hands of the author.