FINALLY: the two-hour interview with Mr. John Wray that we did on bookbabble is online! I reviewed his novel The Right Hand of Sleep here and his novel Lowboy here. I was also responsible for arranging and moderatingthe whole interview thing which is why it’s all a bit confusing and muddled. I’m sorry. It was saved though by the brilliant Björn and luminous Lorne who are the other Bookbabble regulars taking part here. Donny posted the interview in two parts. You can access part 1 here and part 2 here. John Wray was a lot of fun to talk to, and is an overall great guy. Enjoy. (Part 1, Part 2)
Here I sit, fumbling with Skype, waiting for John Wray to come on. Today he will visit us chez bookbabble. In the meantime I found more stuff of his. Here and here are my reviews of his books and below is the first part of an unusual reading of his new novel, i.e. in the subway.
Below is a Q&Asession with Wray. I make a point not to watch or read interviews before conducting one myself, so I haven’t seen this one, I think, but it looks good. Its from an reading at The Raconteur.
Below is a discussion of John Wray and Adrian Tomine. Sound is a bit off but its worth persevering.
Really, buy/read his books.
He clucked his tongue and nodded. “That doesn’t surprise me. The teachings of Descartes are well and good for the old country -; but here they just don’t churn the butter. This nation was founded on belief – credulity pure and simple – just as the great French Republic was founded on skepticism. Faith, whatever clothes you put it in, is the corner-stone of our Union. You’re an American, sirrah -; not an Egyptian or a Swede. Without an understanding of belief – without a sympathy for it, a talent for it – you will never make your penny.” He shook his head. “No, my friend! The Enlightenment is not for us.”
Wray, John (2001), The Right Hand of Sleep, Knopf
There are so many books around that most of the time we barely manage to read what we really feel we should read or have to read, and reading a book for a second or third time is often just too much. At least that is my stance, and the reason why I rarely re-read books. In some rare cases, a second reason enters the picture: if I’m afraid a book won’t hold up, won’t be as good or interesting the second time around. This was the fear that I had upon re-reading John Wray’s debut novel The Right Hand of Sleep after reading and reviewing his excellent most recent book, Lowboy (my review here). Now, I was right about one thing at least. It really is not as good a novel as Lowboy, but I was wrong about everything else: it’s a very good book, a very smart and clever one, too, and a moving work of art. The Right Hand of Sleep is a very, very good novel and an astonishing debut. It radiates assurance, and displays a rare comfort and agility with the tools of fiction, but even this description feels inadequate. In his debut, Wray introduces here many topics that will resurface in later books, but they have a disturbing, haunting quality here that they don’t have elsewhere. Haunting is maybe the best word to describe this book, which occupies an odd place between memory and history, between an emotionally wrought tale of a village in decline, and a clever play with history and narrative. Its chief fault is a certain lack of decisiveness. In his debut, Wray is too often content with sketching something, hinting at it, instead of developing it in a more satisfactory fashion.
This is in part, certainly, because the topic and the setting is infinitely rich; in The Right Hand of Sleep, Wray is basically trying to tell us three to five stories at once, but at the same time he’s writing a very tight, controlled, technically impressive novel. These two aspects of it, the sprawling, wide, sumptuous fabric on the one hand, and the well-ordered, scintillating strictness of literary craftsmanship on the other, clash and struggle to cohere. Ultimately, craftsmanship wins the day in The Right Hand of Sleep, but the final result is too magnificent, too well made a novel to complain. I understand why some readers have criticized the book for being boring, too conventional, uninteresting, even, because it is really a very conservative book, written under the banner of traditional narrative. In those parts of the story that are set in a nostalgic, sentimental version of a rural Austrian valley, there is no parody, no irony or other postmodern devices to break up or challenge traditional notions. But Wray is a subtle writer and adds other kinds of layers that move beneath the surface of the narrative, tectonic plates beneath a seemingly placid ocean. The Right Hand of Sleep is a book that only seems easy to categorize, easy to assign and confine to a place on the shelves of genre. I am under the impression that the book withdraws as soon as you scrutinize it, that in place of clear and unambiguous stories, it leaves our hands full of paradoxes and tricky situations.
However, it’s hard to imagine any novel written by a competent writer that would be set in the period and place Wray chose and not be full of tricky situations. This comes with the topic. The Right Hand of Sleep is the story of a man called Oskar Voxlauer, who returns home to his village in Austria after decades of exile. The year of his return, 1938, is a year of changes for Austria: its fascist leader, Dollfuss, had been murdered four years earlier and the current dictatorial chancellor, Kurt Schuschnigg, under threat of violence, basically agreed to a takeover of Austria by Nazi Germany on March 11th . The next day, when German troops marched into Austria, they were greeted by joyous Austrians, who, the day before, had celebrated the announcement of the takeover in a tumultuous fashion, which led Carl Zuckmayer, a major German playwright, to refer to the public displays of national socialist hate and rage as a veritable “Witches’ Sabbath of the mob.” On March 15th, tens of thousands cheered Hitler as he gave a speech on the Heldenplatz in Vienna. That day and the horrendous public reaction to what happened have been re-told and recounted multiple times, most famously by Thomas Bernhard in his play Heldenplatz. Its a curious fact about Austrian post-war history that Austria, a fascist state long before Hitler´s takeover, has always seen itself as an innocent victim of German aggression, on a par with France and Poland. It took writers like Bernhard or Innerhofer in the 1970s to destabilize that national narrative.
Both Bernhard and Innerhofer are important references here because, even though occurrences such as the one described by Zuckmayer and the Heldenplatz speech took place in Vienna and other large cities, these two writers were fascinated by and obsessed with the rural life, the ugliness in would-be bucolic landscapes. Bernhard’s first published novel and many shorter pieces that followed examine the cold, the heartlessness, the violence and mob-mentality of the rural population. Innerhofer’s disturbing debut, Beautiful Days (1974), does something similar. A book about a boy raised on a brutal farm it coined the expression “Bauern-KZ” (~ Peasant Concentration Camp). There is opportunistic behavior, emotional apathy and unthinking and vicious brutality and neglect and this is just a small sample of the issues with which Innerhofer confronts the myth of a bucolic rural Austria. In Wray’s invented village, Niessen (possibly modeled on Friesach, where his mother is from), we find a similar mob mentality and similarly ugly thing happen or are hinted at, but Wray doesn’t develop any of these in detail. However, he clearly relies on our reading of Niessen as a hateful small backwater village, where a crowd of citizens stands by or takes part, as enraged Nazis demolish a restaurant owned by a Jew, but he also mentions and makes use of other, more interesting nuances. Voxlauer is returning home, but he isn’t the only one to do so. Nazis are returning, too, and I’m not talking about the German troops.
In his brief dictatorial reign, Engelbert Dollfuss (and his successor Schuschnigg) strove to destroy any left-wing opposition by means of raids, incarcerations and murder, they encouraged and tacitly supported Antisemitic violence, but they also tried to eradicate any National Socialist movements in Austria. Austrian fascism was modeled on Francoist Spain more than anything, and a revulsion of Hitler’s mobs fueled not just Dollfuss’ opposition to the Nazis, but also that of other famous antisemitic fascists like Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. With some justification, the Dollfuss regime saw the Austrian Nazis as subversive and dangerous elements in their state, a danger that needed to be curbed as quickly and thoroughly as possible. When a group of Austrian Nazis tried to overthrow the government in the so-called “Juliputsch” in 1934, this fear was vindicated, but too late for Dollfuss, who was murdered. Many Nazis were banished or had to flee in these years of upheaval only to return triumphantly after March 11th,, 1938. In The Right Hand of Sleep Wray makes use of the fact that these individuals are a mixture between being victims and being perpetrators, of being persecuted by a dictator, but originators of a different, worse dictatorship. As we see them return to the village and its environs, we see how estranged they are to what used to be their home, as well. Simple inside/outside dichotomies, useful to describe the narrative behind antisemitic rallies and hate in Germany, don’t work here.
The Jewish inn-keeper, at the receiving end of discrimination and violence, is a native, he is from the village and part of the village in a way that neither Voxlauer, nor the Nazi who develops into a kind of antagonist of Voxlauer’s, Kurt Bauer, are. Questions of blood and heredity, so central to the National Socialist narrative, are subtly subverted by an association with inbreeding on Bauer’s part, and a sterile sexuality on Voxlauer’s, just as social hierarchies, “the architecture of things” are upset by similar associations. And in the midst of this, Wray places the local landscapes. His powerful evocations of nature, the use of amazingly precise metaphors, they establish nature as something independent from humans and their stories. Voxlauer, who., upon returning, is offered the job as a gamekeeper, never really does what he is paid for. He’s an awful hunter and a perennial drunk, stumbling through the wildness like a harmless, vaguely vegetarian animal. Fittingly, the only thing he does shoot is himself, by accident, halfway through the book. And when some riled up villagers rough him up, break his ribs and try to kick his head in, he’s as helpless as the animals he’s paid to hunt. This helplessness, though, isn’t new to him. As a young soldier in the Kaiser’s army in WWI, he was just as help- and hapless and when he, almost accidentally, deserts after being forced to murder another deserter, he drifts through Eastern Europe like a leaf in the wind, or a lost animal. This we learn in the frequent flashbacks.
Structurally, the book consists of the main story, which follows Voxlauer’s experiences in Neißen between March, 4th, 1938 and October the same year, with flashbacks added. First flashbacks of Voxlauer’s own experiences as a deserter, and then flashbacks of Kurt Bauer’s past. These back stories are not written like historical accounts; they read like feverish visions of two person’s troubled past. Both are guilty of something and both feel the guilt weigh heavily upon them, I’d say, although Bauer appears to be somewhat sociopathic. What’s more, these visions or accounts are shot through with dreams and hallucinations. Not all of them visible and clear as such, but historical truth or accuracy is certainly not the aim of these sections. What they are meant to accomplish is twofold. On the one hand, they need to place the story of Voxlauer and Bauer in a broader historical context, and on the other hand they do the same for Neißen as landscape and lieu de mémoire. Taking a different tactic than Nora, Wray focuses less upon buildings and other man-made monuments to shared memories. Instead, he has Voxlauer stumble through a European wildness, over fields, through woods and end up at a Ukrainian farm. Subsequently, he falls in love with the farmer’s widow, is denounced as a kulak and lands himself in a Soviet camp. At this point he is a Communist or shares at least the basic emancipatory ideals with them. Fear, disappointments and the harsh daily life leads him to drop his “belief in things”.
The Voxlauer who returns to Neißen is an empty shell of a man, hollowed out by guilt, loss and sadness. The landscape is the only (or last) reliable thing for him, it doesn’t require his belief, it is content with the fact of his body. In Neißen, an odd love story develops, but it draws heavily upon clichés and seems, within the fabric of the book, less important than Voxlauer’s education. Yes, education, because Voxlauer, returning, re-learns the world. Lowboy‘s protagonist is haunted by his body and his problems with reading the world, which makes the most sense to him when he’s confined in the well-ordered world of the underground tunnels of the subway. Voxlauer’s predicament is similar, not just in this respect. Like Lowboy‘s Will, Voxlauer isn’t mentally completely sound, and as in Will’s case, this runs in the family. The oddities of memory, and the vicissitudes of violence create, here and there, an interesting discourse about the limitations of the body and of the mind. Voxlauer’s body and mind don’t work as he wants them to, they work in starts and fits, and they capitulate not only before the onslaught of fascism and nature, they are also inferior to the limbs and brains of people of comparable strength. Voxlauer’s main limitation is his unwillingness to take action, not even to run away. He bides his time, while the world as he knew it, crumbles around him. His last action was the murder of an innocent man, as sick of the war as himself, and this crime he cannot forgive himself, and it blinds him to the ethical and political necessities of the present.
The development of Wray’s protagonists, from the apathetic and guilt-ridden drunk Voxlauer to the idealistic, driven, resourceful Will is fascinating, especially in light of the fact that Voxlauer’s crime (desertion) has consigned him to the margins, while he was actually born in privilege. Will’s situation, of course, couldn’t be more different. Kurt Bauer’s memories, meanwhile, place him at the center of world history. I’m loath to divulge more but Wray has used one of the less well known parts of history, and adapted it to his purpose, exchanging names and characters, swamping the scene with references en masse. For a book set where it is, many of these references, in this scene or in others, intended or not, are pretty obvious, like Joseph Roth or Thomas Bernhard. Others are more sly but important ones, such as Camus’ famous novel L’Étranger. The connection of Voxlauer’s inaction with that bible of secular existentialism adds one more layer to an already rather complex book. If anything, this is its main fault. The book, while technically taut and controlled, is philosophically indulgent, it’s filled with ideas and it points in many directions at once, without allowing the plot to reciprocate. That we don’t feel this failing as readers, that we still enjoy this book, is due, most of all, to Wray’s fantastic writing. More elaborate than in Lowboy, Wray completely dazzles his reader.
In an almost arrogant display of skill, Wray shows us that he can do anything. He slips into German and out again, slows down and speeds up his syntax at will, makes it bulky in one place and sleekly efficient in others. The way he can retard meaning in a paragraph by using a sluggish, slow syntax, mirroring German constructions, is extraordinary. There’s nothing in here that doesn’t work, and so the evocation of a country at the abyss, of a continent about to plunge into one of its darkest periods, is pitch-perfect. The plot and the characters are not yet as fleshed-out, believable and palpable as in his two other books, but The Right Hand of Sleep gets so much right, that it’s hard to dwell on the things it doesn’t. Highly recommended.
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Wray, John, (2010), Lowboy, Picador
It’s astonishing, really, how far popular fiction steeped in philosophy or theory has come. Modernist and postmodernist fiction, despite the levity and ease that the latter brought to that kind of writing, was still explicitly (and difficultly) theoretic. Writers like Robert Coover or Donald Barthelme have, to this day, written for a certain kind of audience, a select group of readers, not small in numbers but far from representing the mainstream of popular literary fiction. Although there are young writers like the amazing Colson Whitehead, who continue writing these slightly difficult, openly brainy kinds of books, many of our younger writers have managed to create books which are sneakily smart, which tell an engaging tale that works both on a theoretical level as well as on a level concerned with the complexities of ‘normal’ storytelling. Among the writers in this vein are Lorrie Moore, whose so-so most recent novel, A Gate at the Stairs (review forthcoming) is part moving coming of age-tale, part intellectual exercise, obsessed with naming, meaning, and reality and Brian Evenson, who writes harrowing tales of horror, fueled by a fine philosophical mind, fed on a diet of French philosophy. Another writer is the prodigious John Wray. Lowboy, published in 2009, is his third novel, after The Right Hand of Sleep (2001) and Canaan’s Tongue (2005). Wray is a consistently astonishing writer, and Lowboy is an incredibly good book. It’s a lot of things, but first and foremost, it’s a compelling, great read, and a smart one at that. Trust me. Read it.
Like Evenson, Wray manages to write, his literary and philosophical concerns aside, a completely convincing genre novel. This is harder to do than you’d imagine, but Wray pulls it off with aplomb. Lowboy is a mystery novel, employing many tropes and tools of the genre, and it’s an addictively readable mystery at that. From the first to the last page, the reader hurries through the book following the hints Wray has scattered throughout, exploring the dark landscapes below and above NY City. That Lowboy does work like an excellent thriller or mystery is all the more interesting, since Wray has sidelined the detective in his book, more than that: he has given him a bit part, made him second to the narrative and theoretical structure of the book. Without this move, Lowboy wouldn’t be half the great novel that it actually is. In his classic study of postmodern fiction, McHale has pointed to the detective mystery as the genre that best embodies the modernist paradigm. Modernism, according to McHale, is about finding out about the world, the one, real, indivisible world. The literary techniques that are applied to achieve that goal may vary but the goal never changes. There are problematic issues attached to that, especially if we look at fringes and peripheral phenomena. Wray tells his story through his protagonist, and robs the detective of the power to read and explain the world. Things have to be explained to him although the whole story, ultimately, is beyond him, and beyond a simple explanation, actually.
This is important, because Lowboy‘s protagonist Will Heller, nicknamed Lowboy, is an outsider, fringe, part of the periphery: he is mad. No, really, he is a paranoid schizophrenic, and as we enter the book he has just made his escape from the Bellavista Clinic (a thinly veiled reference to Bellevue, I guess) and roams the streets of NY. Or rather: he enters the intricate, labyrinthine underground world of the New York subway system. Even with his perception endangered, he can find his way through NY with ease, and a determination that makes him some kind of Theseus. In fact, this isn’t that odd a reference. Although this Theseus doesn’t need Ariadne’s help, his zeal and resolve are similarly fueled by the wish to save other lives, though in this case, it’s the whole world that Will attempts to save from fiery destruction. In Will’s odd head, the dire global warming warnings have engendered a belief in the imminent destruction of the world by fire that can only be stopped if Will (bear with me) is cooled down, which to achieve he needs to get laid. This may sound like an adventurous story a desperate teenager tries to tell a gullible girl he wants to bed, but Will completely and utterly believes it. In fact, at no point in the whole novel does Wray condescend to his protagonist, he’s utterly serious about Will’s problems and concerns, which is rare.
Mental illness is often subject to readings that celebrate the margin as different, using its symptoms as cute or terrifying images, in order to achieve something akin to an ‘atrocity tale’: connecting with normal people in the mainstream by using the margin as contrast. Wray doesn’t do that, and much of the power and drive of the book is due to Will’s genuine anguish. Sometimes Wray doesn’t offer explanations, which contributes to the mystery and tension in the novel, and even Lateef Ali, Lowboy‘s detective, is sometimes blindsided by the mentally ill people he pursues. Impressively, the mystery that surrounds Will and those like him in the book, is never really resolved, cleared up. This is not about understanding madness. Indeed, Wray appears to harbor no wish to relate Will’s thoughts and ratio in a way that makes perfect sense to his readers, who do not share Will’s predicament, and so the clinical view is completely absent from the book, although psychiatrists do make an appearance in Lowboy. Yet their explanations create as much fog as they clarify issues, and in a twist in the very last sentence of the book, John Wray makes, unambiguously, clear that Lowboy is a literary work of art, that it does not attempt to speak about people afflicted with Will’s illness. As we know from Foucault, this is a central problem: mental illness is rarely allowed to speak itself, and if it is, its speech is licensed, framed, ‘allowed’. For a writer not afflicted with the illness in question, this can be a kind of trap.
John Wray offers a few solutions. Among these is his refusal to explain Will, to make his readers empathize with him at all costs. Another is the serious, earnest nature of his portrayal of Will’s perception. Although Lowboy creates an exaggerated image of the mind-set of many teenage virgins, and of the hyperbole that teenagers are often prone to display whenever they are feeling particular put-upon and desperate, exaggeration never turns to caricature. Will’s desperation is palpable and real, and his reading of the world is different from mine or yours, but Wray doesn’t linger on the specific issue of the difference, he doesn’t spend much time with Will’s symptoms as symptoms. The seriousness (despite the fact that Lowboy is actually a hilarious book, to be honest) provides an interesting link to another genre that Wray sets his book in, apart from the mystery aspect. It’s a coming-of age tale in a way. Many reviewers have correctly cited J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye as point of reference. This is appropriate inasmuch as the anger and directness of Salinger’s protagonist, and his disdain for the “phoneys” does have many parallels to Will’s behavior in Lowboy. But Will is like the light, open version of Caulfield. There is no hate, no real disdain in him, he’s wondering, trying to cope, and understand. One of Wray’s remarkable achievements is that he managed to use a difficult character in a way that is not the least exploitative, I think, that makes use of his unique situation without pathologizing him. There are many schizophrenic characters in fiction and many more who are otherwise mentally ill. Will doesn’t resemble them as much as he does the unmarked boys from modern (normative) coming of age novels.
I have, accidentally, been reading a few of those lately, from great works, like Padgett Powell’s Edisto, to dire ones, like Joe Dunthorne’s Submarine, or Sue Townsend’s series of horrible books. The worse the book, the stronger the tendency to use irony and sarcasm, to distance oneself from the story through clever tricks and ruses. Clever puns and a knowing air, these can work when you’re as extraordinarily talented as the young Martin Amis who managed to pull this kind of writing off in The Rachel Papers (read my review here), but there’s a dishonesty, really, to the whole enterprise, and looking at its center you’ll find, more often than not, an unoriginal philistine mind cloaking itself in cleverness. In the bad (but well-praised) books, this is invariably the case. And what’s worse, they are horribly normative in the worst way. Iterating white male narratives, reproducing cute images of repressive myths, these books are really quite damaging to public discourse. The cleverness and irony makes it just less bearable. Caulfield is an exception, because of his directness.
Another exception, and focus of one of the best coming of age novels ever written, is the protagonist of Henry Roth’s magisterial Call It Sleep. Roth’s David Schearl (though he’s quite a bit younger than the usual characters of these books) is bewildered by the world around him, and as he uncovers the world beyond his apartment, he discovers language anew, and the world, and Truth, are revealed to him in a set of complex epiphanies, though his head can’t grasp them. This poetic and religious understanding of his environment, which unfolds in the pages of Roth’s incredible novel, is close to how madness may be described by some. There is dirt, and sex, and intrigue, but Schearl stumbles through all this without having to resort to cheap asides and ironies. Reading Lowboy, Roth’s book was the first I thought about. While the gravitas and the scale of the two novels are very different, they share a concern (also questions of cultural heritage, by the way) about how the world is read by someone who is not part of the in-crowd, whose sexuality may be differently bracketed (With Roth there’s also of course the later books to consider), someone who cannot rely on convention to make sense of it all.
This is crucial. What separates Will from ‘normal’ people is not madness, it’s that his perception of the world is fresh. Philosophers like Nelson Goodman have shown how much even the very act of seeing is translated to us via conventions. Much of Will’s oddness, when he changes into a two-dimensional world, for example, or when signs around him come alive, this is not strictly speaking mental illness. Wray has captured a fragility in narrating the everyday, by using a character at the margins, who is able to see the world the way he does because the normative narrative has pushed him so far aside that he doesn’t even develop double consciousness. Those whom we regard as sick and disabled we shelve, we box them, as/like objects. And still we punish them. So while they do not get to partake of the narrative of power, they suffer its consequences. The ease with which we as a society inflict punishment upon those whom we regard as disabled is astonishing, the forcefulness with which we ensure that the conventional reading of how limbs and minds are supposed to work is the only reading available and deviations are shelved, boxed and punished, is frightening. The cascade of story and images in Lowboy implies a cognizance of this fact, of the enormousness of this kind of oppressive structure.
Will is dangerous to himself and others, this we learn early in the book. Or is he? Lowboy captures eloquently the fine line that separates truth from normative fiction. There is a careful ambiguity to the question of how (and if) Will is as dangerous as Lateef Ali and the others think he is. Although the larger structures of state and society are not explicitly invoked, Wray scatters obvious references throughout. The fact that Lateef Ali was born Rufus Lamarck White (there are five essays begging to be written just about that name and its meanings in relationship to the novel and its contexts, political and cultural) is one such plain, but unforced reference, another is “Skull and Bones”, Will’s nickname for the wardens who pursue him through the underground, which can’t help but recall the Yale society that goes by the same name. Not only that one. Conspiracy theories, not just Sutton’s silly one, are at heart reductive, reactionary celebrations of the status quo, even when they appear to question it (cf. for example Daniel Kulla’s fine book-length essay on the topic), and as such, the nickname and the job of the two wardens in hot pursuit of Will are a perfect fit. Between Ali and the wardens, Will navigates between realistic and cliché representations of reality. The fact that he doesn’t depend upon convention and consensus to understand the world, means that he can move from a realistic world into a symbolic world of representations, where people are proxies for ideas and structures.
There’s more to the novel than that. Personally, I felt a strong connection between this book and Saul Bellow’s slanderous (but brilliant) Humboldt’s Gift, also, the use of semiotics in the book warrants many close inspections. Lowboy manages to take on a difficult kind of protagonist without falling into various traps. This book is not about understanding Will (and those like him), it continues to put off final explanations. It’s an incredibly rich book, and a review as short as this cannot possibly do it justice, but in closing, it’s important to not overstate the ideas, because, incredibly, despite all this, Lowboy is a great, suspenseful, quick read, that works on a direct, engaging level. Wray’s prose is careful, elegant and insanely precise, but also very unobtrusive. It’s hard to imagine anyone not liking this book. By rights it should be a bestseller and the object of university seminars both. This is a moving, great read. Don’t miss out on it.
Drunk or off his meds, Andrew Womack lets Kathryn Stockett’s The Help move ahead against John Wray’s Lowboy, one of the best books published last year (here is my review). The judgment is as ridiculous as his reasoning for it:
I’m reducing this matchup to style versus substance, and where Lowboy has much more of the former, The Help brings a bigger story to sink your teeth into. My sense, though, is that neither book has what it takes to go the distance in this competition. The Help has the ambition, but lacks Lowboy’s edginess.