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"Lowboy" by John Wray

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In “Lowboy” we experience the thoughts of a teenaged mental patient, Will, who has abandoned his medication. They are shocking in the sense that somehow we recognize the torture Will suffers, the agonized logic of his delusion and the urgency he feels to make things right. Author John Wray shows all this in highly effective and arresting prose. It’s exceedingly well done – it haunts the reader and we begin to fear that we too might be drawn into the madness rampaging through the book.

We fear it because our representative in the book, N.Y. Police detective Ali Lateef, begins to weaken under the influence of Will and his mother Yda. He starts his day feeling good about himself and his fitness for his job, but when Yda arrives for questioning about her missing son, the mystery and uncertainty make their entrance. The chapters from Will’s point of view are nothing short of uncanny. I could translate Will’s inner posturing and his outward mien into a highly intelligible whole, thanks to Mr. Wray’s skill. The mental problems almost seem contagious, not only to Detective Lateef, but also to us, the sorry-for-eavesdropping-but-I-can’t-help-it reader.

Two other stories come to mind, which offer intimate narratives of mental illness, Anne Enright’s The Gathering and John Burnside’s The Devil’s Footprints. Of these two marvelous pieces, “Lowboy” resembles the Enright more closely, because it devotes more of its pages to the internal dialog of the stricken person. This book also has a thriller’s nerve-wracking and inexorable pacing. Mr. Wray acknowledges a few sources at the end; if he’s able to weave such a stunning, beyond-the-pale fiction from such sketchy sources, all honor and glory go to him.

I consider the artifice of Will’s internal and external dialog, at length, beyond compare. So much is devoted to them that the passages take on a life of their own, which seems appropriate given his schizophrenia. It’s all there. Desperation, the genius observations, the hallucinations, the perverse application of his own mad framework to every look, object, and word.

Every look, object, and word in this novel will impress, haunt, and harrow you throughout. I’m sure I didn’t expect this. My only experience with Mr. Wray, The Right Hand of Sleep, did not prepare me for it. Then again, nothing can prepare you for Lowboy.

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