William Heller, aka Lowboy, is 16 years old, exceptionally intelligent and beautiful, and suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. He experienced his first attack when he was twelve, read everything on the topic he could find and learnt to cope. But then, about three years later, he's accused of pushing his girl-friend Emily on the tracks of an underground train. Although she refuses to testify against him, he's sent to a 'special school' as his mother tells him, in reality it's an institution for the mentally ill. He stays there for one and a half year, two weeks before his time's up he stops taking his medication and then escapes instead of waiting for Day X. He's got a mission to fulfil.
I read the book because I met the author. The reason why a young and aspiring American author (born in 1971 as John Henderson, 'Wray' is his pen name) should come to a small town in Germany and read from the German translation of his novel was
a) that he's living in Berlin at the moment on a scholarship and
b) that someone in our town knew that his novel Lowboy was set mainly in the tunnels of the New York underground system. A young German artist had built an installation featuring tunnels in the local art gallery and so it was thought a brill idea to invite John Wray and ask him to read excerpts from his novel dealing with tunnels.
He mentioned that we wouldn't get an idea of what the novel was about if he only read on tunnels but repeated several times that it didn't really matter as there wasn't much of a plot anyway. This intrigued me, was he fishing for compliments or telling the truth? The latter is the case. The story begins when Lowboy disappears in the underground system where he meets odd creatures, people living most of the time in the dark. He learns how to walk on the ledges fixed to the walls of the tunnels to secret hideaways. His mother and a policeman specialising on missing persons follow him, occasional sightings are reported by members of the force. Lowboy's mother talks about her son's disease, so the past is filled in.
The main body of the novel, however, is the insight into the boy's sick mind. He's convinced that the world will be consumed by fire within the next 24 hours and that only he can save it if he succeeds in getting the degrees out of his body which were pumped into him. Having sex and losing his virginity are a way to salvation in his opinion.
Wray explained after his reading that it had been his intention to show the working of a paranoid schizophrenic mind because the American public knew next to nothing about this topic. He did a lot of research, he read medical literature and talked to paranoid schizophrenics about their condition.
As I've pointed out there is no real plot, suspense is created by Lowboy's escaping and his mother and the policeman following him. The ending is a surprising twist. By choosing the New York underground system as a setting and filling it with strange characters and events the scientific topic of paranoid schizophrenia becomes a story so-to-speak, it's like flesh to the bones. Someone asked if it was vital for the story to be set in the underground system of *New York* or if it could also have been set somewhere else, in Vienna maybe? (The author's mother is Austrian and an uncle of his supervised the building of the underground in Vienna). No, it has to be New York, Wray needed a huge system with very long lines and a complicated one like the one in New York which was 'glued' together from different networks and doesn't follow a logical order. Moreover, it had to be old and shabby and slightly mysterious. He worked on the novel for four years writing most of the time travelling by underground with his laptop on his knees and headphones on his ears. I must say he brings the location to life, it assumes a kind of character of its own. I refuse, however, to see tunnels only as symbols for atavistic fears or prenatal memories of the birth canal we were forced to get through. Go away! But I can't accuse Wray of introducing these ideas, it were the arty people who had invited him, who thought along these lines.
By chance I lived wall to wall with a paranoid schizophrenic when I was at uni. But I realised this only after my exam when our ways had parted. She had her disease under control when we were together, later she was institutionalised and heavily medicated. I saw her only three more times afterwards, I couldn't get to her old self any more. She also believed that the world would end, she expected an atomic war any day, but didn't think of saving the world, only herself. Because of her and the book Lowboy I now know a bit about the disease paranoid schizophrenia but I can't say that this helps me in any way. If I met another paranoid schizophrenic, I would still not know how to behave. The disease is so far removed from what common sense can understand that I think only specialists can grasp it.
I don't regret reading the novel, it was an interesting experience even though the coming-of age problem is woven into it. I've noticed again that it doesn't pull me off my chair (as the Germans say). I'm glad that it isn't my own problem any more and that I have no personal relationship with anyone of the age group in question any more.
To come to a conclusion: Lowboy is a good book for the right target group but lacks the general appeal in my opinion.
The 'Sour Lemon Prize' goes to cover designers Diane Collins and Jordan Hollender. They've composed a photo of a boy in the foreground and the Empire State Building in the background (see top of the site) for a story that takes place mainly in underground tunnels. Don't cover designers at least skim the books they design the cover for?