Lowboy by John Wray

March 22, 2010

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.