Going 1/2 Retard with John Wray in “Lowboy”

Wray

Everybody knows you never go full retard.

Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man. Look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Counted toothpicks, cheated cards. Autistic, sho’. Not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump. Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong competition. That ain’t retarded. Peter Sellers, Being There. Infantile, yes. Retarded, no. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard.

It’s true for books as well as movies. Benji in The Sound and the Fury. Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn. Christopher John Francis Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Great protagonists, all suffering from mental disorders, but all functional and quite literate.

We’ve heard people say there are more instances of Multiple Personality Disorder on  soap operas than in real life. And we’re tempted to say there are more mildly retarded people at the center of literary fiction than in real life. But that’s probably not true.

John Wray made a bid for a spot in the canon of mildly retarded protagonists when he published Lowboy earlier this year.

Will Heller is a sixteen-year-old paranoid schizophrenic. Sometimes he’s a bright, insightful, and reasonable young man. But, in a wonderful collision of our society’s collective fears and a teenage boy’s sexual fixations, Will believes he is the only person who can save the planet from a kind of global warming apocalypse, and he must do this by finding the right person to have sex with. Off his medication, running from his mother, his doctors, and the cops, Will scrambles around the New York subway system, whose history and minutiae are his favorite obsession.

A perfect storm of publicity accompanied this novel’s publication in March. (Hats off to the publicity team at FSG.) John Wray got blurbs from his Brooklyn writer friends, like Colson Whitehead, Gary Shteyngart, and Nathan Englander. He drew the attention of James Wood, The Most Infallible Literary Critic In The Whole Entire World, and landed in the pages of The New Yorker. And he popped up on all the New York media blogs when he delivered a reading of the book on a moving L train between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Between all the hype and the overworked trope of the schizo hero, we were prepared to dislike this book with a passion. But it turns out you can build a good engine from used parts. There’s a lot to admire in John Wray’s execution of Lowboy.

It’s structured like a suspense movie, one of those artsy foreign things from France, where the tension is always ringing in yours ears, and it simply gets louder and louder until the end, when it releases in a kind of tragedy. Lowboy is unusually exciting for a book with literary ambitions. Some of the chapters follow Will, and his state of mind is always convoluted and sharply observed. The other chapters follow Will’s mother and the cop assigned to track him down, and it’s here that we learn about who Will is and what he’s really capable of.

Clearly the author did his homework on paranoid schizophrenia. The interaction of the third person narrator with Will’s thought process is the most successful and rewarding thing about the book. Here is part of a note that Will leaves for his mother, and the cop decodes from a simple encryption.

THE WORLD IS GETTING HOTTER NOT SLOW AND STEADY BUT LIKE A SNOWBALL (NOT A JOKE) OR A MUDSLIDE GETTING FASTER ALL TIME. THIS IS NOT MY OWN INVENTION VIOLET BECAUSE I READ IT AND I SAW IT ON THE NEWS.

I WANT TO OPEN LIKE A FLOWER VIOLET. LIKE A FLOWER DOES IN POETRY. I THINK THAT MIGHT HELP AS THE WORLD IS INSIDE OF ME AND THAT WILL/MIGHT HELP TO COOL THE WORLD. POSSIBLY. BODIES WILL HAVE TO GET COLD NOW VIOLET. MANY BODIES. ANYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD YOU COULD HELP ME WITH BUT NOT WITH THIS. IM SURE YOU KNOW THAT VIOLET.

ALSO YOU MIGHT TELL.

We’ve never been a paranoid schizophrenic before, but we assume Wray is nailing it.

At the risk of giving something away, we have to complain that Will’s mother gets more and more kooky as the novel goes on, as if the only way to pull the rug out from under a mildly retarded character is to surprise us with another character who’s even more fucked up and bizarre.

Although it’s a great read, Lowboy never widens its scope to examine Will’s irrational fears about global warming, his attitudes toward sex, or what it means for our society that people like Will Heller are walking among us. All the book shows is that paranoid schizophrenics have it rough (duh) and John Wray is a hell of a writer.

It would be nice to live in a world where books like Lowboy—entertaining books with a strong literary bent—are described as such, instead of touted as “virtuosic,” “profound,” “classic,” “a tour de force,” and “a masterpiece.” But at least books like Lowboy are still getting made, even though everybody knows that book publishing has gone full retard.

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