When Will Heller escapes from the psychiatric ward where he’s spent the last year and a half of his life, his flight could be read in a few ways: For his detached mother Violet, the addressee of a note he left in his ward bedroom, it’s a sign he needs the further extended stay she’s been begging for. Detective Ali Lateef sees a routine Special Category Missing whose remaining relative is in denial about the incident that put him in lockup in the first place. But Will, off his anti-psychotics for the first time, is convinced he’s about to make a major breakthrough that will keep the world from ending, if only he can find the right person to help him connect the dots. With signs everywhere pointing to the task ahead, he disappears into the New York subway system to accomplish the quest he’ll explain to just about anyone—including the victim of his last incident.
Will’s break with reality is evident in the first few pages of Lowboy, John Wray’s third novel, which trades perspective among Will, Violet, and Detective Lateef in the aftermath of Will’s disappearance. Writing from a schizophrenic viewpoint without resorting to dull repetition or glorifying the flights of fancy as a supreme consciousness is Wray’s master stroke, as he mediates the phantasmagoric stream coming from inside Will’s head, with just enough linguistic clues to drag readers forward. The novel’s obsession with names and the way they’re given, from Will’s pet name for his mother to the detective’s resentment toward his father for renaming the whole family, echoes the runaway’s predilection for describing what he sees to the people he comes across, no matter how frightening or unwelcome they find his visions.
So skillful is Wray’s handling of the delinquent that the other narrators pale in comparison, justifying their existence in the book mostly by offering expository nuggets about Will’s behavioral record and childhood. These tidbits supplement his sudden flight but don’t explain it, and Wray deserves credit for not forcing them to account for every vision. Will’s world—his psychosis and the dizzying way it exerts itself as he gazes at an oncoming train or a sidewalk puddle—is far more than the sum of its emotional parts. These disparate views never quite merge into one, but at least they reach a remarkable terminus.