Lowboy, by John Wray (Canongate)

 “The opening pages recall Salinger,” says the back-cover blurb. Yes, they do, though where Holden Caulfield was merely disaffected, Will Heller, the teenage protagonist of John Wray’s novel, is deeply disturbed, with his own tightly coiled, hyper-lucid way of seeing. But the blurb doesn’t stop there – it isn’t in the nature of blurbs to stop there. “The denouement and haunting aftertaste may make the stunned reader whisper ‘Dostoevsky’. Yes, it really is that good.” No, it isn’t really that good, though what is? The reference is presumably to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground: a very large part of this novel takes place on the New York subway, where Will, a paranoid schizophrenic, is on the loose.

Will may be paranoid, but people – his doctors, the police – really are after him. He has escaped from the psychiatric institution where he was incarcerated, and he has stopped taking his medication. Will – or Lowboy, as he is known – is a visionary, and sees the world heating up, hour by hour; climate change is happening all around him, immediate and catastrophic. Only he can save the world, only he can cool it down.

Above ground, Detective Ali Lateef, who specialises in tracing missing persons, is assigned to the case. With the rather obstructive cooperation of Will’s mother, Violet, he tries to locate the teenager before he harms someone else or himself.

John Wray is a smart writer, and he knows how to build suspense in a story. He also knows the New York subway, and its subterranean other-worldliness. He knows the ins-and-outs of police investigations, of desultory interviews in offices, of deduction and guesswork.

The pleasure of this novel, apart from its artful unwinding of the plot, is in the movement from one field of consciousness to another. The narrative roams between Will’s psychotic, hallucinatory visions, the baffling enigma of his mother, and Detective Lateef’s patient, reasoned, caution; one minute we look through the detective’s eyes at Violet, as he tries to work her out; in the next, we look through her eyes at the detective making a phone call she isn’t privy to. Such changes in point-of view would be confusing but for Wray’s mastery of corresponding changes in syntax, diction, cadence; people see differently, and Wray recognizes this at every level. Part police procedural, part literary thriller, Lowboy is always engaging, and often brilliant. The ending alone justifies Wray’s presence on Granta’s list of best young American writers.


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Tim Tweets