I never would have picked this book up if it hadn’t been sitting eye-level on a shelf at the library, Adrian Tomine’s fantastic cover art staring me in the face:
Even after I checked Lowboy out and started the first chapter, I wasn’t convinced I was going to read it. Everything I’d assumed when I perused its reviews were confirmed when I got started–it was too-cool Brooklyn boy fiction. There was a show-offy knowledge of the subway system, clever word-play (“bricktiled” as one word–descriptive, even great, but again, show-offy! for a first page), a delving into schizophrenia that seemed fetishistic. I was predictably annoyed and put the book down for a couple of days. I even started a new book–Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor (which I can’t wait to get back to–it’s amazing). I packed Lowboy up in my purse to return on my way home from work.
Ironically, a very lengthy subway ride saved Lowboy from the fate of being returned the library unfinished. I got bored waiting for the 7 to make its interminable journey crosstown and finished the first chapter, started the second and found myself actually hooked.
The novel opens with Lowboy, or Will, a sixteen year old paranoid schizophrenic, evading his hospital escorts and escaping onto a subway car. Will is convinced that the world is inside of him; to solve global warming, he has to let the heat (the degrees) out of his body. How? By having sex–the perfect teenage-boy solution. The girl he chooses to help him is Emily, a lovesick friend he pushed onto the train tracks, an incident that resulted in his institutionalization. He rides around underground trying to save the world, pursued by “state appointed enemies” as well as his mother, Violet, and a police detective, Lateef. Chapters alternate between Will on his mission and Lateef and Violet on theirs.
What made Lowboy fun to read is that it was a suspense novel–it kept me curious and on-edge at all times. It also created this delicious conflicted feeling–I wanted Lateef and Violet to catch Will before he hurt Emily, himself, anyone–but I also really wanted him to escape their attempts and save the world. Lowboy also entailed a relinquishing of control on the part of the reader. For so much of the book, the reader is immersed in an alternate reality and has no choice but to accept that what Will believes is happening is, in a way, what is happening. Is a thug beating the shit out of him? Or, is a golden being leaping like a deer, then disappearing into vibrations in the air? Maybe both? And, without giving too much away, I will say too that Will is not the only unreliable character in the book.
So, yeah, Lowboy is trendy Brooklyn boy fiction, maybe exploits mental illness, and is at times a little annoying, but it’s also an absorbing, exciting read filled with tricky sentences, unfurling mysteries and what ends up being a really fun defamiliarization of a place many of us spend too much time: the subway.