I was fortunate enough to find a copy of John Wray's book, 'Lowboy' recently. It left me breathless. It is an extraordinary book, ostensibly about schizophrenia but more generally, as the reader progresses through it, it becomes a very unique prose poem about New York in all of its glory and filth.
In a curious fashion, it reminded me of Tom Wolfe's 'Bonfire of the Vanities'. That book was a study of New York from the perspective of some one from high society who takes a wrong turn. 'Lowboy' is a novel about a young schizophrenic whose entire life is based on a map that no one else can read.
In both novels, the 'city that never sleeps' emerges as the protagonist, at turns alluring, even irresistable, but ultimately a force that is as powerful as Kali or Shiva, capable both of destruction and creation.
Tom Wolfe and John Wray are very different in their styles and John Wray probably has not yet reached the peak of his potential as a writer. Nonetheless, 'Lowboy' is a powerful piece and it made me think of another young prose poet, Arthur Rimbaud.
'Lowboy' takes you through the underground system of New York as well as its streets. The underground emerges as the arteries of a powerful being who, like the Colossus of Rhodes, is one of the true Wonders of the World.
Open the book almost anywhere and you will catch a flash of brilliance:
'Already he felt the wave of doubt receing. Sometimes it passed through him hurriedly, haughty and careless, as if to show how little he was worth. Other times it capsized him completely. Not today, however. His eyes followed the tracks into the dark. The empty water-flecked channel where only the trains resided. The acidic yellow of the safety stripe. Behind the third rail a rat was lying splayed on its belly, twitching contentedly, drinking coffee out of a battered paper cup.'
John Wray weaves a poet's tapestry from the disparate threads of American jazz, the history of New York, schizophrenia, codes and ciphers, the subway system and the incredible dynamics of urban city life.
The description of 'Lowboy' as a prose poem about New York is not intended to denigrate the role that schizophrenia plays in this novel. Schizophrenia is a condition that both attracts and terrifies many artists, as it represents creativity in its ultimate potency, beyond reason and safety. It, like cancer, is creativity run amok, but every great artist has wished at least once, for the capacity to SEE reality in an entirely unique fashion. The boundary between schizophrenic vision and the vision of an artist sometimes is blurred. 'Lowboy' captures the essence of schizophrenia and the reader gradually comprehends the price that is paid for the type of 'madness' that transforms everyday life into an epic drama and ultimately one that either ends in tragedy or the 'flatness' that is created by medications given to control the illness.