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Wray twitters character left out of "Lowboy"

Fiction writer John Wray, who was raised in Buffalo and is a graduate of Nichols School, has developed into something of a guerrilla marketer of his three critically acclaimed novels. The 37-year-old, who consistently ranks among the best American novelists under 40 in most of the publications that generate such a list, went on a reading tour down the Mississippi River on a raft he constructed out of Home Depot scrap lumber to promote his second novel, Caanan's Tongue, a narrative tour de force about John Murrell, the infamous mid-19th century Louisiana-based slave trader, horse thief, preacher and criminal gang leader.
 
Last month, he began a reading tour for his current novel Lowboy (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) on a New York City subway ride, returning to the location where much of the novel is set, and, in fact, was written.  Beginning on Feb. 19, Wray also began a parallel narrative project that involves the trend-setting social networking site Twitter.  
 


On his Twitter page, you can follow the musings of "Citizen," a fellow subway rider of Wray's 16-year-old protagonist Will Heller (aka "Lowboy"), who has escaped from a New York City psychiatric hospital, stopped taking his meds and is pursuing his paranoid schizophrenic delusions as a fugitive in the subterranean world of the New York City subway system. The character of "Citizen" was edited out of the final draft of Lowboy, only to be reincarnated in the form of a sequence of 140-character-or-less text messages (or "tweets") that constitute the user updates of Twitter and are available to readers who visit Wray's profile page on the Twitter web site or subscribe to the updates via RSS feeds or mobile-phone applications. 
 
"I chose a character with fairly straightforward fears and desires, with the intention that each individual tweet might read as a complete micronarrative," Wray explained in a recent e-mail message to a reporter from Poets & Writers magazine. "That's a hell of a lot harder than I anticipated, of course, and a lot of good material has to be cut away. But it's probably a healthy exercise to be compelled to say things in as few words as possible." 

Fans of the genre known as "flash fiction" -- a narrative approach markedly different from Wray's dense, multilayered narrative in The Right Hand of Sleep (2001), his debut novel set in late 1930s Austria during and after the Nazi Anschluss -- will find the prose poemlike concision of Citizen's text messages alternately amusing and disturbing.
 
Here for instance, is a message dated April 3: "Citizen's dreams smelled like hair gel and cheese. Colgate toothpaste. Malt liquor. Occasionally, during celebrity walk-ons, like rosewater."  And here is another, dated March 30: "Dream #3: Citizen working as a private chef for a high-ranking GOP paranoiac. Blades of all kinds prohibited. Chewing for hours & hours."
 
Wray, who was born in Washington, D.C., to an American father and an Austrian mother (both of whom were scientists employed by the National Institute of Health), spent his childhood and teen years in Buffalo and Friesach, Austria.  He returns to Buffalo to read from Lowboy at 7 p.m May 5 at Hallwalls Cinema. Introducing him that evening will be his friend Brigid Hughes -- also a Buffalo native -- who was the first editor to succeed George Plimpton at The Paris Review and currently edits A Public Space, a quarterly literary magazine based in Brooklyn.
 
--R.D. Pohl

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