High Times for John Wray in Lowboy

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Published March 6, 2009

Brooklyn-based writer John Wray just released his third novel, Lowboy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), chronicling the misadventures of a schizophrenic teen riding the subways of New York City in search of world salvation and sexual release. While that may sound like a typical Tuesday on the A-train to many New Yorkers, in Wray’s hands, the material is transformed into a larger exploration of the role of narrative and the creation of reality.

Wray’s career has its own elements of the schizophrenic. In 1997, he was fired from his job at a gallery, dumped by his girlfriend, and kicked out of his Chelsea sublet. He subsequently moved into a tent in a friend’s band’s basement rehearsal space in the Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO to write a draft of his first novel, The Right Hand of Sleep (Vintage). The book was well received critically and won the prestigious Whiting Award, thus handing Wray his ticket out of tent life.

“I moved to Park Slope, because that seemed like the polar opposite of the horrible basement in DUMBO where I’d lived before,” says Wray, who cuts a boyish figure at 37. “I decided I just wanted to move to the neighborhood that had the highest concentration of those three-wheeled jogging baby strollers.” Amid the strollers he began work on his second novel, Canaan’s Tongue, about a slave trader in mid-19th Century America. The book took Wray five years to write and, despite further critical acclaim, it was, in his words  “a total disaster sales-wise, not even a blip on the radar.”

With the publication of Lowboy, however, Wray seems poised to take his place among a crop of young New York writers who have made challenging and sometimes experimental work more palatable to the mainstream, like popular darlings Jonathan Lethem or Wray’s friend, Gary Shteyngart. In an act of poetic justice, Wray rented an office on the seventh floor of the same building in which he once lived in a tent, which has “a window and was a million times nicer,” although he says the bulk of the first draft of Lowboy was written before he had an office on the very subway that was to become its setting. Wray is giving a nod to the debt he owes the MTA by staging a reading of his newest work on the L-train later this month.

A flurry of media coverage, including shout-outs in popular venues such as New York Magazine, as well as the less esoteric subject matter (contemporary New York v. his last novel’s 1860’s Mississippi River) has raised hopes that Lowboy will allow Wray to bridge the divide between commercial and critical success. “I sort of thought I might be able to have my cake and eat it too with this book,” he told me. “I wouldn’t have to compromise my ideas about structure or style, but at the same time, it would by its very nature be the type of book that was more accessible to a greater number of people and maybe not a just a book for literature snobs. Even though I’m a literature snob myself.” Wray will be giving a reading on the L-train on Thursday, March 12. To participate, meet at the 14th St and 8th Ave platform and board the last Brooklyn-bound car.