Books

An Anti-Hero's Quest

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The teenaged boy's quest to get laid is one of fiction's most inexhaustible tropes, whether it's Nick Twisp pining after Sheeni Saunders in C.D. Payne's teen-angst classic Youth in Revolt, or those dudes in that one movie about the pie.

The protagonist of John Wray's daring third novel is on a mission that evokes the plot of Porky's, but it would be a mistake to conflate Lowboy with the rest of the genre. Will, AKA Lowboy, is a 16-year-old paranoid schizophrenic who's become obsessed with climate change, believing Earth to be on the brink of overheating. He's concluded that the only way to end global warming is by lowering the temperature of his own body, and the only way to do that is by having sex with his friend Emily. Problem is, last time he saw Emily, he almost killed her in an outburst for which he was institutionalized. (The fact that he's a paranoid schizophrenic and off his meds is also a problem.)

Wray handles this bizarre scenario the only way he can: By explaining as little as possible, and allowing the details of Will's bizarre mission to emerge slowly over the course of the book.

As Lowboy begins, Will is riding the New York Subway, having just been released from the hospital—but not, as planned, into his mother's custody. He's set out on his own to find Emily, and it's clear off the bat that something's not right: Will manages to freak out everyone in his train car, with talk like, "The world's going to die in 10 hours. Ten hours exactly, Grandfather. By fire."

As Will searches for Emily, a parallel search is taking place: Will's mother is helping a police detective piece together the details of Will's life, trying to understand where he might be and where he's going.

By all rights, this book should read as utterly preposterous: Global warming? Schizophrenic sex quest? What? Wray's writing is so spare and direct, though, that the book only seems odd when you stop to think about it. Meanwhile, narrative tension is established immediately and ratcheted up to a vibrating intensity by the end of the novel, making Lowboy that rarest of books: an utterly new take on a familiar theme.

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