Written by on April 9, 2009

Lowboy

34752450.JPGI’ve just checked this one out, but haven’t started it yet. The story is about a teenage schizophrenic who has gone off his meds and slipped out of the mental hospital and into the New York subway system. Like a lot of people, he worries about global warming, but he thinks that it will destroy the earth in a few hours, and that he’s the only one who can save it. From the Amazon description: “Suspenseful and comic, devastating and hopeful by turns, Lowboy is a fearless exploration of youth, sex, and violence in contemporary America, seen through one boy’s haunting and extraordinary vision.”

Author John Wray’s previous two novels (The Right Hand of Sleep, Canaan’s Tongue) were critically acclaimed historical novels; the first was set in Austria between the world wars, and the second in the Civil War. Lowboy sounds like a departure for him, but he’s garnering comparisons to current literary big dogs Joseph O’Neill, Jonathan Lethem, and Junot Diaz, and praise from sources as diverse as NPR, Marie Claire, and GQ. Wray chose an unusual but appropriate setting to work on this novel:

Three years ago, not long after I’d begun Lowboy, I made a decision that–in retrospect–even I find slightly odd: to write as much of the novel as possible on the New York City subway. The reasons for this admittedly drastic step ranged from the practical (subway cars have no internet access, no cell phone reception, and next to no procrastination options) to the wildly romantic, if not outright ridiculous. Like some over-eager method actor, a part of me was convinced that I’d write about the subway more vividly and honestly if I immersed myself in it absolutely. Fully half of Lowboy’s narrative takes place underground, much of it in the subway tunnels, so getting the look, smell, and feel of subterranean New York right was crucial to the book’s success. It also happened to be cheaper than renting an office.

bock-1901.jpgThe challenges of my new workplace weren’t the ones that I’d expected. I was amazed at how effectively I was able to tune out the commotion around me, simply by putting on headphones: a good playlist on my laptop was essential, but beyond that, as long as I avoided rush hour, staying focused presented no great problem. The seats in the older cars made my back hurt after a few hours, certain stretches of track in the outer boroughs were so rough that it was hard to type properly, and restrooms were few and far between, but I adjusted to those things in time. The more comfortable I got, however, the more my frustration grew, for the simple reason that the subway was starting to feel like my living room. I was becoming resistant to its strangeness: I was seeing it with the eyes of a commuter. Nothing could have been farther from the point of view of my protagonist, a sixteen-year-old schizophrenic boy, newly escaped from the hospital, to whom even the most familiar things feel alien. The harder I looked, the less I seemed to see.

I’m not sure what triggered the change that came a few weeks later, but I know that it came suddenly. I was riding the Coney Island-bound F in the early morning, staring blankly out the window at the tunnel racing past; I remember feeling bored and vaguely hungry. When I turned around, though, I seemed to be in a different car completely. For the first time, every feature of the interior had a clear purpose to me: the seats stopped short of the floor for ease of cleaning, the orange and brown tones were meant to encourage well-being, and the polka-dot pattern on the walls, which I’d never looked at closely, was in fact made up of the official seal of the state of New York, repeated countless times in brown and grey. The discovery made me a little paranoid–on the lookout, suddenly, for more signs of Big Brother’s presence–which was just the state of mind I’d been pursuing. From then on, the novel all but wrote itself.

Check out a video of Wray on the subway. A succession of passengers take turns reading from the first chapter:

author photo: Amber de Vos

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