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by John Wray (FSG, 2009)

With John Wray's Lowboy, you get two novels between one pair of covers. One of the novels is an incandescent memoir of madness, tonally acute and terrifying in its capture of consciousness impaired. Although the madman a teenager who has escaped hospitalization and medication believes that the world is about to end, and that only he can forestall the catastrophe, his adventures are not interesting in themselves; they have all the sad inconsequence of mental dislocation. But they're furiously interesting to read, because Mr Wray's skilled mediation makes the boy a gripping companion. Whether we're comfortably seated in domestic lamplight, or hurtling through the tunnels beneath Lexington and Lafayette, we devour the narrative hungrily, continuously refreshed, throughout Will Heller's ordeal, by the security of knowing that the author will insult neither our intelligence nor Will's misery.

Lowboy craned his neck to get a better look. The conversation seemed to harbor another message inside it, a confidential message addressed to him and him alone. A great show was being made of not seeing him crouched against the column with his right hand on the briefcase. The not-seeing had been worked out masterfully. The man with the patty had finally finished and was wiping his fingertips one at a time on a dirty bandanna. Lowboy could easily have bitten the man on the calf. A mechanism inside the briefcase was keeping him from picking it up and running: a gyroscope or an electromagnet. A magnet, he decided. He felt the same charge pass through him that he'd felt at Museum of Natural History when he'd let his fingers rest on Andrew Jackson. This is what power feels like, he thought, clenching his jaw to keep his teeth from rattling. Rich people feel this way every day. They plug themselves into it like toasters.

The lamination of coherence and incoherence is perfect: we follow the action so easily that we don't care about any incomprehensible details, such as why Lowboy imagines that there is a "mechanism" in the briefcase. Later, if we want to think about it, we may read the last lines of the passage as a brilliant reification of money, a reduction of the power of wealth to a palpably creaky machinery, powered by magnets to which rich people can hook themselves up directly to get their jollies. ("Andrew Jackson" refers to a twenty-dollar bill lying on another station platform.) But right now we don't have time for such parsing. Is Will going to steal the briefcase, and what will happen next if he tries?

That is the good novel contained in Lowboy, and, thanks to the author's formal decisions about the work, you can read it without interruption by skipping every other chapter.

Then there is the not-so-good novel, the overheated, undersatisfying thriller in which a police detective and Lowboy's mother somewhat reluctantly and quite ineffectively team up to apprehend the boy before he does harm either to himself or to others. This is the part of the book that will excite movie pitchmen, evoking memories of such disparate excitements as Memento and The Taking of Pelham 123. The detective, well-drawn and solid enough to propel a whole series of crime novels, has an interesting portfolio of issues, and we want him to succeed. The mother is more enigmatic. As a literary composition, she may be less mysterious than short-circuited, overloaded by too many imaginative prototypes, from Patricia Highsmith's Edith to Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis. The penultimate chapter ends with an implausible, willed-sounding telephone exchange between the detective and the mother's former psychiatrist.

"Are you trying to tell me, Doctor " He stopped to take another breath. "Do you mean to tell me that we talked for half an hour in your office, with her waiting right outside, and you never once saw fit to let me know?"

"I have a confidentiality agreement with my patients, Ali. I like to honor that agreement." Kopeck cleared his throat mildly. "In any event, I assumed that her condition was self-evident."

As I say, this will work in the movies. On the page, it's both disappointing and misleading. Misleading, because Lowboy is not a thriller. There is no real mission to accomplish (beyond tracking down a troubled kid a routine undertaking in this town), nor any mystery to solve. How can there be? Will Heller is out of his mind. He may be brilliantly out of his mind, but for all his brilliance he remains incapable, as mad people are, of thinking through any functional correlatives to reality. The detective-novel half of Lowboy degrades Will to the level of a ticking time-bomb. This ticking gets louder as the number of unread pages melts away into read ones, and we wait, as all good police procedurals have trained us to wait, for a revelatory payoff that does not, in fact, arrive. Suspense, and not Will Heller, is the monster that John Wray has created in this book, and it nearly devours his creation.

And the detective story is disappointing because, in the manner of Paul Auster's atmospheric little books, it too willingly substitutes style for gritty verisimilitude. This is amplified by the author's decision to give Will's mother a lot of the time that we would rather spend with the detective. When you're following a cop on a chase, you might champ at the pseudo-philosophical thoughts that fritz through the mother's mind.

Lateef glanced at her from time to time in that odd way he had, studying her as if to confirm some theory, but she had too much on her mind to pay attention. Part of her was still in The Phaeton's dark expectant lobby and the rest of her was in the street with Will. It was a good thing to know what was going to happen next. It made you feel that randomness was not the universal law, as if a thing you'd been taught to think of as hollow were suddenly to have substance. There was comfort in that belief, if you were willing to put reasonable doubt aside. She wondered whether Will took comfort there.

Yda Heller Will's mother is one nut too many for this fine-grained book. The quality of her thought is never so lovingly etched as her son's is. Lost in recursive loops of guilt and need, Yda doesn't really look at things anymore. We miss the scared wonder with which Will takes in the world:

The sun was declining and the firepits were glowing and oil-colored nightbirds were warbling down from the trees. The birds and the fires and the voices made a chorus. His own voice was in it. Dead air whistled through the tenements and bottles oozed and sparkled in the weeds. Sunlight cut into his body like a blessing.

He walked down the street with his left eye shut against the sun and his fingers hooked together at his neck. Smoke rose straight up from the ground in silver lines. Two boys with socks on their hands were kicking something in a rolled-up paper bag. He walked with one foot on the curb and one foot off. There were cars on the street but most of them sat flatwheeled on the ground. Pelts of carbon swaddled them. He found one that he liked and climbed inside.

I'm looking forward to climbing inside John Wray's next book, as long as there's only one good novel in it. (8 April 2009)

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