John Wray’s Lowboy follows William Heller (a.k.a Lowboy) on a whirlwind day through New York City. Lowboy is a 16-year-old schizophrenic who has escaped from his mental health care facility. He believes that the end of the world is imminent due to global warming, and that only he can save it by cooling down the temperature in his body. To do so, he must locate a girl named Emily Wallace and enlist her to help him. Meanwhile, his mother and a detective race to find him before it’s too late.
I was initially intrigued when I read the summary of this book, but I was also a little uneasy about the subject matter. It’s very easy for an author to Other their characters or paint them in stereotypes if they come from dissimilar backgrounds. This isn’t always the case–image if even half of the fiction authors around the world personally experienced the things they wrote about!–but special care does have to be taken when say, a male author is writing a novel in first person and his main protagonist is a woman; the experiences informing that point of view just aren’t there.
In this case, Wray creates a host of characters whose lives are far outside his experience, and it shows. None of his characters are full human beings. Instead, their interactions with the world (and each other) serve as mere plot devices. Lowboy, for instance, is off his meds and in the grip of his illness. The reader gets to see fragments of his thought processes, but really, he’s just a Crazy Person On The Loose who must be stopped before he hurts someone.
The other characters fare no better. There’s no plausible explanation for why Emily Wallace is so trusting of him, especially since she almost lost her life a few years before, when he pushed her onto the subway tracks in front of an train. Their relationship is simply not believable.
Then there are smaller nuances that don’t sit well. Detective Ali Lateef’s name was originally Rufus Lamarck White, but his father changed it for religious reasons when Lateef was still a child. Lateef never fully accepted this name change, and remained uncomfortable with that fact even as an adult. This tidbit about his character history never goes anywhere; it’s just a thrown-in fact that only serves to Other that character.
Nor does the reader ever make any real connection with Violet, Lowboy’s mother. She’s a beautiful woman originally from Europe; I was never fully clear on exactly where in Europe because so many countries’ names were dropped. Denmark? Austria? Germany? She withholds information from Lateef throughout the day, divulging it is bits and pieces so as not to confess The Big Secret. She’s is erratic and overly-defensive about her role in Lowboy’s illness. There’s an undercurrent of mother-blaming throughout the novel, most of it inexplicable.
Overall, the book was disjointed–in a bad way–and disappointing. The characters fell flat, The Big Secret was anti-climatic and largely irrelevant to the plot, and the ending left much to be desired. Two stars.
Publisher/Year: Picador, 2010