Imagine Dostoevsky in New York City, the Underground Man taking the A Train, only not hurrying home to Harlem but sneaking into abandoned stations in midtown Manhattan. That describes Will Heller, a schizophrenic 16-year-old who has gone AWOL from his school, gone off his meds -- he was on Clorazil -- and is out to save a world that is in the terminal stages of global warming. So radical is the warming that the world is scheduled to fry in just hours.
"Lowboy" is the third novel by John Wray, the Nichols School graduate who was John Henderson during his Buffalo days but later took on the nom-de-plume of John Wray in homage to actress Fay Wray who starred in "King Kong." Wray made his writer's debut in 2001 with "The Right Hand of Sleep," a novel set in Austria in the 1930s, during the rise of Fascism. (Wray's mother is Austrian born.)
He followed that in 2005 with "Canaan's Tongue," a book about race and slavery in America, featuring a gang of outlaws who pretended to be the Underground Railroad and seduced slaves into running away from their plantations, only to betray them to their owners.
"Lowboy" is his break from the rigors of historical research. It is a darkly introspective book, closeted and disturbing, that sees Wray trading in history for psychology. He even models his Will Heller on the character of Dr. Daniel Paul Schreber, whose "Memoirs of My Nervous Illness" in 1910 prompted Sigmund Freud to write one of his most famous case histories, though he had never treated or even met Schreber.
Will Heller has recently walked out of a facility where he had been overseen by starchy European-trained doctors named Fleisig and Kopeck. He had been committed after having thrown his school friend Emily off a subway platform because, apparently, she had touched him. Talk about touchy! Now he is adrift in a New York he scarcely recognizes. "He had been a cosmonaut for 18 months, a castaway, an amnesiac, the veteran of an arbitrary war. The world had gotten older while he'd been away. Away at school, regressing." Maybe it is for that reason that he heads for the subway and rides it in great sweeping arcs around Manhattan, like the worm Ouroboros that has its own tail in its mouth.
In his East Side, West Side, all around the town meandering, Heller is on several quests. One is to find the Emily he had pushed off the subway platform in an act of inexplicable rage. Another is to turn up one of Manhattan's underground rivers, the Quiet River which the Indians call the Musaquontas. (No, you can't Google it up; I've tried.) "You can't get rid of a river," his father had once told him. "You can only dig it under. ... The truth of the matter is that's why there's no Second Avenue line. The old Musaquontas is still in the way."
And then there is the quest to save the world from "the fire next time," the heat death that will strike in hours if he doesn't act. On top of all this, Will is in flight from two imaginary assailants: Skull and Bones, who remain unseen but not unfelt, since they have their hands on the gears and levers of the world. (There is no mistaking the reference to the Yale University secret society that had both the elder and younger Presidents Bush as members.)
Trying to track down this bedeviled, hallucinating savior is his mother Yda, who has taken on the name of Violet, because that is Will's name for her, after her favorite color. She wants to find him before he does damage to himself or someone else: he has a history of misbehavior underground. Yda/Violet hooks up with a police detective who calls himself Ali Lateef, though he was born Rufus Lamarck White. (Lamarck, as in the French biologist?) He is a sort of bounty hunter who loves anagrams, acrostics, and coded messages. And to complicate matters, Detective Lateef within minutes is hitting on the widowed Violet. He has a special incentive for finding Will Heller: a kiss of gratitude from the tearful mother.
Meanwhile, Will Heller's plan to save the world, from his seat on the IRT, is taking shape. He must have sex. That's right. Prompt and frequent sexual activity will save the world from the fire, and, really, if you don't believe in sex-as-salvation at 16, when will you? So, Will's dream of world redemption is what normal urges rev up into when you go off your Clorazil. Or is it Zyprexa or Depakote? When he is seduced by a young woman named Heather in an abandoned station, you would think that would do it. Apocalypse later! But by the end, Will has gone full goose anti-apocalyptic and manages to fulfill enough of his desire to save not only Earth, but also Venus, Mars and Jupiter. It may not be enough but he is giving it his best shot.
There is little point in saying that "Lowboy" (named, yes, after an item of furniture) is a strange novel, since strangeness is what Wray is aiming at: a world imagined though a fever or a headache or impairment so great that all of it, even above ground, seems shattered, edgy, Cubist. The world is experienced as dislocated planes, brooding immensities, clashing perspectives. Did Wray hang out at the Albright-Knox during high school?
Nor is it different for Violet and Ali Lateef, as if Will Heller were hallucinating them all. Since Wray is also a musician who has played in bands with names like Marmalade, the King of France, and the Naysayer, "Lowboy" sometimes seems more like a musical composition than a work of fiction, more a tonal composition than a story. Underground, Will Heller hears the subway's all-aboard alarms as a C-sharp followed by an A. His mind is filled with jazz tunes.
"Lowboy" is a brilliant and gutsy performance but a cryptic one. It expresses its meanings in hallucinated events that seem to vibrate on the page. At certain moments the book feels like a runaway subway car; you want it to slow down for you. But with Will Heller being chased by Violet and Ali as well as Skull and Bones, there is no slowing down. Toward the end, "Lowboy" moves with increasing acceleration toward some apocalyptic rendezvous with greenhouse gasses deep under the sidewalks of New York.
Mark Shechner is a professor of English at the University at Buffalo.
By John Wray
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
258 pages, $25