Farrar, Straus & Giroux:
258 pp., $25
The subway is a metaphor you can ride. Offering its voyager the illusion of free movement within strategically circumscribed patterns as well as systematic shuttles between darkness and light, it's no wonder the subterranean highway is the ultimate repository of urban folklore. John Wray's haunting third novel, "Lowboy," which he wrote almost entirely on subway trains, delivers a vivid set of notes from underground, tunneling into the warped adolescent mind of Will Heller, a beguiling but seriously unhinged 16-year-old paranoid schizophrenic. Early on, Will finds that the subway "seemed self-contained, a closed system, but in fact it was the opposite of closed." Open and closed, hot and cold, Will could be more accurately describing the workings of his own troubled mind.
Will, with his gnomic nickname, Lowboy, is an unreliable witness to the events of this 24-hour story. "The order of the world is not my order," he admits, but this much is eventually made clear: The boy, institutionalized for more than a year after committing a violent crime, has escaped his chaperons and is now running loose through the bowels of Manhattan in search of a female companion with whom he -- and only he -- can prevent the world from ending by fire in 10 hours by, well, having sex.
The suspense builds in alternating chapters that unfold aboveground, where Lowboy is tracked by Ali Lateef, a missing-persons specialist, and Yda, the boy's cryptic and fragile mother. Ali aims to forestall Lowboy's potential menace to society, while Yda is more concerned with her son harming himself.
These parallel narrative tracks operate in discrete stylistic modes. Though Wray's careful shifts in perspective often turn "Lowboy" into a highbrow police procedural, with twists, escapes and plenty of selectively withheld information, they also underline an unequal balance of emotional power. When the book takes his point of view, Lowboy's opaque thought process is always backed by a precise longing, expressed in lyrical turns of phrase: "He understood then that there were two ways of making her look back at him: the sick way and the well. The way that would keep her and the way that would lose her forever." But elsewhere, detective Ali Lateef's internal monologues and quirky affectations fail to explain why a weary gumshoe would treat this case (and, by extension, Yda) with such particular care. It's as if Lowboy's world-historical delusion has seeped into his pursuer by osmosis.
Despite its honestly earned idiosyncrasies, Wray's breakthrough novel -- arriving after two dissimilar works of historical fiction -- will likely be filed alongside the work of his bestselling Brooklyn contemporaries. "Lowboy's" meticulous mapping of metropolitan myth recalls Paul Auster's "City of Glass" and nods to the genre tics of Jonathan Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn," the Tourette's-driven murder mystery that effectively defined the DSM-IV noir.
But "Lowboy" is replete with mysteries and associations all its own. Nearly every character sports a nom de guerre -- Ali Lateef is the former Rufus White, Yda is regularly referred to as Violet, a subway crack addict named Rafa calls herself Heather Covington and Will is our Lowboy -- and these names yield some alluring fruit. Lowboy, who rides lonesome toward his fate like Gary Cooper in "High Noon," is one letter removed from "cowboy." Heather, in keeping with the novel's global-warming paranoia, is awful close to "heater." Violet is one step from "violent," and Ali, with the help of an extra letter, is doomed to "fail." (Savvy New Yorkers may even catch a winking reference to ubiquitous subway-advertised dermatologist Jonathan Zizmor -- colloquially known as "Dr. Zits-More.")
These signs and wonders take root only because Wray fully envelops the reader in both the existential and quotidian concerns of his afflicted protagonist. Lowboy's hero-projections and hormonal overdrive are, in this author's hands, tragically epic expressions of an ordinary teenage fatalism. "The world is inside of me," Lowboy warns, and the author does not mean to contradict him. This poetic, stirringly strange novel offers an empathic reminder that, for many, the light at the end of the tunnel can be taken for a harbinger of doom.
Gottlieb writes about books and film for the Nation.