John Wray, “Lowboy”
Insanity as a literary theme has always had an audience—those ardent peeping-Toms who love to wallow around in somebody else’s mania. And there is something about the draw of a house fire or a mangled car on the Interstate that seeps into our indifference with the power of a jackhammer.
Add a paranoid schizophrenic, some kinky sex, a crazy mother, a tired, overweight missing-persons detective, and a subway full of imaginary and real characters, who wouldn’t want to turn into an instant voyeur?
Will Heller, the teenager in John Wray’s novel, Lowboy, is the schizophrenic protagonist who takes us on his wild delusional journey through the cavernous New York City subway system. In the opening chapters of the novel, we discover that he has dodged his mental-institution escorts, Skull and Bones, and tries, unsuccessfully, to have sex with an older street transient, Heather Covington, to whom he tells his apocalyptic delusion that the “air is getting hotter” (at the end of the novel, Heller’s last sexual encounter with a prostitute is a moment-of-release epiphany that seems to free him from his encapsulated, delusional belief that the world is coming to an end by “fire” while, at the same time, offering him the possibility of freeing himself from all of reality).
Will Heller’s magnetic draw exists on two levels. He is, of course, a fictional character, a “lowboy”—a “useless” piece of furniture—who has a spicy, schizophrenic imagination, His world is full of real, imaginary, and hybrid characters: a Sikh with small feet and the face of doll; a conductor whose lips flap; and he admits early in the novel that he himself was once a “cosmonaut, a castaway, an amnesiac, the veteran of an imaginary war.”
In the novelist’s own imaginary world, his fictional character, Will, is pursued not just by his delusions and made-up characters, he is also pursued in his real life by his paranoid-schizophrenic mother, Violet, and Ali Lateef, a missing persons detective who “enjoyed anagrams, acrostic poems, palindromic teasers and any cipher that could be broken with basic algebra” (Wray has this provocative penchant for paring gothic loners in the novel; he is also very clever in having created an anagram lover who can read Heller’s schizophrenic linguistic codes, a paranoid schizophrenic mother as a soul-mate-in-arms, and a girlfriend, Emily, who is initially attracted to Will’s heightened sensitivity).
Will Heller, as Wray’s fictional persona, also has other magnetic powers. He is immersed in a descriptive world of schizophrenia that is more than just a transcription of madness. It is itself a kind of apocalyptic world of images that burns with the heat of such intensity that it is almost impossible not to get hooked into as a reader: “if they come close to you they’d melt”; “her beautiful face began to disassemble”; “He pictured it (the train) late at night, following its ghost through its melancholy circuit”; “the tunnel puckered like a mouth.” In his own disassembling world of madness, Heller builds a convincing argument for his own credibility.
And it is madness here—sweet, fragile, intense, erotic, underground madness that we are witness to in this novel, a film-noir tableau of harried insanity that becomes a kind of auto-erotic rush. Wray couldn’t haven’t chosen a more fitting setting—the New York City subway—as an archetypal symbol of our worse nightmares with its creepy anonymity, its mad rush of always-in-motion characters, its one-room-apartment loners, its rust-smelling odor of metal and steam. And, like Heller’s schizophrenic mind, it is below the surface of what we see above ground.
To Wray, my new idée fixe, don’t hang it up with this novel. Keep writing.