Getting lost inside a troubled mind

By Nan Goldberg
Globe Correspondent / April 2, 2009
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Most people probably think crazy people are "colorful," interesting to read about. They're not. Truly insane, certifiable people, at least, aren't. On the contrary, what defines these sad souls is their claustrophobically boring limitations.

The lives of the mentally ill are circumscribed in a way that yours and mine are not: they can only see reality through the scrim of paranoia, for instance, or narcissism. They can never get out of their own way. They, like the people who don't remember the past in Santayana's famous remark, are condemned to repeat themselves, again and again and again.

And that's the problem with "Lowboy," John Wray's third novel, about a teenage boy who's a paranoid schizophrenic, and from whose point of view much of the story is told.

Will Heller, called "Lowboy" because of his obsession with subways, believes the world is about to end and that only he can save it. But because his mind circles endlessly, turning itself around, forward, backward, inside out, and back again without ever getting anywhere different, he does not hold the reader's interest beyond the first few pages.

More engaging are Violet Heller, the boy's beautiful, enigmatic mother; and Ali Lateef, the New York City Missing Persons detective assigned to find Will. Lateef and Violet start out wary of each other but develop an oddly intense, erotic relationship while working to locate Will, who has disappeared into the subway system, popping up out of the depths at intervals like Punxsutawney Phil, then re-descending.

It's a surprising alliance (though not totally implausible) given that their goals conflict: Lateef is dealing with a public menace with a history of violent behavior, while Violet is trying to protect her son.

Still, Wray makes them real, partly by giving them some delightfully loony idiosyncrasies: Lateef cracks codes in his spare time; Violet, a native of Austria, frequently tangles American idiom: "get out the cutlery" for "call out the cavalry"; or, "sitting here doing . . . nothing . . . like we have all the tea in China."

The dynamic between mother and son, as revealed by Will's thoughts and Violet's recollections, is tantalizing: When Will was 12, Violet tells Lateef, he liked to make up stories and illustrate them. "I was in some of the stories, usually as the villain. I was called The Final Solution and I wore a black rubber cape."

Smiling ironically, she interrupts herself to advise Lateef, "If you were a therapist you'd start listening closely now."

The writing is lovely, the first paragraph enticing enough to cause that jolt of adrenaline that tells the reader he or she is onto something really good:

"On November 22 Lowboy ran to catch a train. People were in his way but he was careful not to touch them. He ran up the platform's corrugated yellow lip and kept his eyes on the train's cab, commanding it to wait. The doors had closed already but they opened when he kicked them. He could not help but take that as a sign."

Ultimately, though, the novel can't hold up under the weight of Will's ravings. What does it mean when he writes to Violet, "If you meet anyone who knows me at PAYLESS SHOE SOURCE or DAFFY'S CLOTHING BARGAINS FOR MILLIONAIRES you can tell them I've seen terrible things. But don't tell anyone at BERGDORF GOODMAN." What insight can be gained from "My mother was a house. . . . I was a piece of paper or a cigarette or a bed"?

In literature, unlike in life, there must be inherent meaning and logic. Without them - well, why read? You can get meaninglessness and disorder just by living.

Nan Goldberg is a freelance writer and book critic.

LOWBOY By John Wray

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

260 pp., $25

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