BY NICO VREELAND
Author: John Wray
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009
Best ebook deal: A1 Books
Lowboy, Amazon’s book of the month in March, concerns a teenager with schizophrenia. Will Heller, who calls himself Lowboy, stopped taking his medication days before his release from state care, and ran as soon as he was free.
This book is an enjoyable reading experience, but it’s not a novel, and it’s not quite The Catcher in the Rye with schizophrenia, as it seems to try to be. Lowboy is the fictionalized case study of a teenage schizophrenic, slightly fuzzy on certain details, but not without its charms. What it doesn’t have is real drama, because a mentally ill main character short circuits the possibility of novelistic drama. This is why you rarely see novels with mentally ill main characters.
Half the narrative is a detective story (that of Will’s mother and a police detective trying to track him down), and this has mixed results. To a certain extent, it breaks up the disorienting feeling of being in Will’s consciousness, and provides some legitimate emotional tension. But the detective story still revolves around Will’s illness, and so it’s ultimately unsatisfying.
If you liked Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, read Lowboy. Likewise if you like character studies, or you’re curious about schizophrenia. On the other hand, if you want a solid dramatic novel to read, look elsewhere; you’ll find Lowboy lacking.
Admittedly, I’m not the ideal reader for this book. My hackles immediately rise whenever I get a whiff of mental illness in a work of fiction, because mental illness takes away intentionality and automatically lowers the importance of fictional events.
Good drama has to have intention; the characters have to mean what they do, and what they say, and they have to understand and live with the consequences. If characters can’t be held accountable for the repercussions of their actions, the drama of the situation is relatively shallow.
The drama of Lowboy is shallow; it’s that of a lion escaped from the zoo. We can be afraid of what the lion might do, we can sympathize with the lion, but we can’t blame the lion for its actions.
Now, mentally ill people can certainly be sympathetic and interesting, and I definitely empathized with Will and his mother and many other characters in this book. But when a mental illness erases a fictional character’s ability to make decisions, that takes away the core drama of his presence in the narrative.
To paraphrase Will’s mother: Will isn’t a criminal, he’s a boy with an illness. I’ll go one step further: Will is not a character, he’s the personification of an illness.
In Lowboy, it’s everyone vs. Will’s disease. Will’s sections are overshadowed with his struggles to merely exist with a debilitating condition. He makes the only decisions he can—to stop taking his medication and to run—before the story begins. After that, he’s at the mercy of his schizophrenia.
All that said, while Lowboy cannot overcome the limitations of the mental illness narrative, it does perform well within them. The ancillary characters—Will’s girlfriend, his mother, and the detective—are intriguing and complex. They’re well-intentioned but often scared by Will’s schizophrenia, and a bit self-serving to boot. It’s a shame, really, because Wray has the hallmarks of a very good novelist, but the project he set out for himself is nearly impossible to successfully execute.
If this book had been a novella, it could have been easy for readers to breeze through the character/illness study without needing real novel-type drama. If the scope of the book had been larger (i.e. it took place over years instead of hours), seeing Will in a variety of situations and levels of lucidity could have helped readers see the person he is through the illness he has.
As it is, though, Lowboy is a novel-length case study, which doesn’t work (as well as it could) as either a novel or a case study.