Lowboy by John Wray

I only read this book after it was eliminated from the Tournament of Books. Its elimination severely bruised my brackets. I did not hold its failure against it, however, but against Andrew Womack who inexplicably picked The Help rather than this book. Well, okay, he had an explanation, that’s the great part of the TOB. Still, I did not agree.

Outrage can only carry a person so far when his opinions are held in the darkness of ignorance. Hit a light switch, the world changes.

Andrew Womack, The Help decision was your biggest TOB mistake since 2005 when you advanced The Plot Against America to the Finals while sending Heir to the Glimmering World to the lockers. Your reasoning then was that, despite Heir being “practically flawless”; it was not enough. No, you wanted the book to have more “to tell.” So you waived through the flawed and held back the nearly perfect.

We must learn from history. An important lesson from the 2005 debacle is that hype, page count, sales numbers, “scope”, and historical settings do not elevate a flawed novel above “a beautiful story, beautifully told.” Yet, here we are and Andrew has chosen The Help instead of Lowboy primarily because it “brings a bigger story to sink your teeth into.”

With apologies to Winston Churchill, that is something up with which I will not put. Dangling prepositions are the least of Andrew’s worries. He chose, again, to dismiss the slimmer book with style in favor of a bulky, flawed remaking of history. Bad call.

Andrew rectified the 2005 error by voting against Plot and for Cloud Atlas in the championship. He will not get the same chance at redemption this year, unless the TOB becomes, not only lighthearted, but a joke.

Lowboy is not flawless, but there are no crippling deficiencies. Wray’s prose is efficiently pleasing and manages to capture both humor and emotion in crisp, but not showy, language. Some of the best parts are revolve around Detective Ali Lateef and Yda Heller (mother to the 16-year old, missing, schizophrenic Will):

But the woman outside his office door could never have been a nurse. The shoes had been chosen to make her look less graceful — they must have been — but somehow they had the opposite effect. There was something involuntary, even feral, about the way she held herself. The beautiful woman’s indifference to everything around her. She seemed to have no idea of the inconvenience she was causing. She held her cigarette between her thumb and ring finger, a little distastefully, like a twig that she’d just pulled out of her hair.

The relationship between Ms. Heller and Detective Lateef expands, deepens, and morphs throughout the novel in interesting, unexpected, and aesthetically pleasing ways. Their sections are as important to what Wray has to say about the world as those sections that focus on Will and his exploits while on the run. Both are fully wrought characters that pull the reader into the story and develop the themes of individual identity (Detective Lateef’s name used to be Rufus Lamarck White; Yda Heller is called “Violet” by her son Will) and eccentricity that are important parts of the narrative of Will’s life.

Various explanations are given for Will’s nickname, Lowboy, but his love of the New York subway is what makes the moniker feel most apt. One can imagine that Lowboy, if left alone on an underground train, would be perfectly content. That may not be true, because his constant companion is paranoia and, hence, seeing threatening meaning in everything including in the design of the subway car.

He would never meet the people who’d drawn the blueprint, never have a chance to question them, but he could learn things just by looking at the car. You could see, for example, that they were fearful men. The pattern on the walls, which he’d always taken to be meaningless, was actually made up of thousands of miniature coats of arms, symbols of the authority of the state. The interior of the car was waterproof, the better to be hosed down in case of bloodshed. And the seats were arranged not for maximum efficiency, not to seat the greatest number of people comfortably and safely, but to express the designer’s fear with perfect clarity. No one sat with their back turned to anyone else.

Lowboy is an interesting character. He has some of the charm of Christopher John Francis Boone (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), but with a much darker edge. His unique way of looking at the world is engaging and disturbing. The reader, like so many of the people with whom he interacts, roots for him, is fascinated by him, and fears him. Wray manages Lowboy superbly, never allowing the reader to forget how sick the boy is, but always with enough sympathy and compassion to keep from alienating the readers.

Wary tries to pack a number of issues and ideas between the covers of Lowboy. From mental illness to detective story tropes, from issues of identity to issues of race, Wray touches on them all, but never in a heavy-handed or patronizing manner. It is the kind of book that rewards a second read. Wray writes with care; he writes for attentive readers.

For instance, Detective Lateef’s former middle name is “Lamarck”, but the reason for the reference is hardly apparent when it is made and its significance only becomes apparent to the astute as the characters and plot are revealed. It is the sort of detail that The Help is not polished enough to possess and that The Lacuna would emphasize to the point it lost all its aesthetic power.

While Lowboy was not my favorite TOB contender, it is certainly one of the most well-written. It is shameful that it was nudged aside by The Help. Lowboy will not be for everyone, but it will provide value to nearly anyone who reads it. Wray is an outstanding writer who has put forth a very good effort. On the strength of this novel, I will look for more of his work. Whether the subject of this one entices you, I encourage you to pay attention to John Wray.

*Note – I mean absolutely no disrespect to Mr. Womack who is a fine reviewer and, I am sure, an honorable man. Mostly, I am just trying to have fun with the TOB, so any pokes at Andrew are meant in the best of humor. I do disagree with the decision, but that is the fun of the TOB. Feel free to shred me in the comments, Andrew.

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5 Responses to Lowboy by John Wray

  1. Amy says:

    I couldn’t disagree. My only real complaint with Lowboy is the buildup to the big “secret” towards the end, when it was fairly obvious early on what the secret was. But that’s small overall, and it definitely should have beat The Help.

  2. Kerry says:

    Thanks, Amy. You are right about the “secret”, both that it was not too surprising by the time it was revealed and that it was “small overall”. The book was driven more by its themes than any particular plot surprise (and there were several). I think there is a legitimate argument that Lowboy should have beaten Let the Great World Spin. The Help is in an entirely different category.

  3. OK, I’ll bite.

    Every book that’s selected to be a part of the ToB is a contender — we believe they all have a shot at the Rooster. However, some books are more favored than others. Just look at the seeding: “Lowboy” is a fine book (wouldn’t be here if it weren’t — and like yourself, you can count me among those who will be following Wray’s work), but from before the ToB started it was a third seed. Likewise, “The Help” is a no. 2 seed and “Let the Great World Spin” is a top-seeded book. And, look at that, the decisions have unfolded in exactly that order.

    Now, had I advanced “Lowboy” over “The Help,” that would’ve been an upset. And had I picked a third-seeded underdog, how would it have fared against a no. 1 seed like “Let the Great World Spin?” It would have a shot, but I wouldn’t bet on “Lowboy” winning that contest. And based on the seeding, I’m not alone in that.

    In my “Lowboy”/”The Help” judgement I very plainly state: “…neither book has what it takes to go the distance in this competition. ‘The Help’ has the ambition, but lacks ‘Lowboy’s’ edginess.” Know what kind of books have what it takes? That’s right: books with big, badass, provocative plots that capture your imagination, strike you on a deep, emotional level, and affect the way you look at the world from now on. Books that fear nothing, especially dangling prepositions.

    “Well-written” books — if that’s the best thing we can say about them — are boring. I want visceral stories with plots that matter and that surprise me. And only after that do I want it to be well written. Give me style after substance. Give me both, and you just became my new favorite book.

  4. Kerry says:

    Andrew,

    Thank you very much for the considered comment. I understand the seeding is done by a group of which you are not a part, so there is some convergence of opinion between your decision and the decision of the seeders. Of course, I would have disagreed with the seeding. To go further, I am not too pleased with The Help being included at all. But that is another matter.

    Much more interesting is your statement: “I want visceral stories with plots that matter and that surprise me.” I think that is precisely what I have learned from the 2005 example and this The Help vs. Lowboy match. You like plot first. I might suggest you confuse plot with substance, but I doubt that is really true.

    The Da Vinci Code has one of the most successful plots ever, but not a great deal of substance. Dan Brown is no James Joyce, no Virginia Woolf. He is no Nicholson Baker, for that matter.

    Give me substance first, yes. But plot is not substance. I can do without plot almost entirely if there is sufficient substance, particularly if the substance is related with style. Plot is, like style, only a tool for driving home substance. Both plot and style should support the substance of the novel. That is the crux. The Help has plot, but the plot largely subverts any of its negligible substance.

    Lowboy has far more substance, though perhaps a less ambitious scope, than The Help. Lowboy has much more style too. The Help could only win, if at all, on plot. That, or an utterly failed ambition. Ambition really should be coupled with at least a modicum of success to garner respect.

    Give me style and substance, you have given me a new favorite too. The difference between us is that I do not count plot as substance.

  5. […] HW: “Lowboy is not flawless, but there are no crippling deficiencies. Wray’s prose is efficiently pleas…“ […]

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