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Monday, April 16, 2018

Lawn Boy: The Struggle Is Real!

I love Jonathan Evison novels because they're about people vastly underrepresented in fiction — people who are able to keep a sense of humor and self-deprecation despite how much life can kick them while they're down. Evison (The Revised Fundamentals of CaregivingThis Is Your Life Harriet Chance, and more) is a charming, funny writer who really understands people of all walks of life. And that shines through in his empathy for his characters.

In his new novel, Lawn Boy, his protagonist is Michael Muñoz is a 22-year-old landscaper. Mike is stuck on the bottom run of society's ladder, but fighting hard to climb up. He lives with his mother and his older developmentally disabled brother — their father skedaddled when Mike was a kid. But not before truly traumatizing him by telling him he'd take him to Disneyland, driving him to a parking lot, and telling him "Hm, they must've moved it." So Mike is used to disappointment.

One of the things that immediately endears you to Mike is that he truly enjoys being a landscaper — he has a really talent for topiary. He takes pride in a profession society sort of deems a job for folks on the lower-tier. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have big dreams — for instance, he plans to write the Great American Landscaping Novel. If you need another reason to like Mike: He's also an avid reader, getting recommendations from his new friend Andrew, a librarian at his local branch. (Andrew steers him clear of "MFA fiction" — Evison, a proud graduate of the "school of life," delights in pointing out how "MFA fiction" is overwrought and boring.)

So spends his time Mike hanging out with his neanderthal buddy Nick who berates him for his crappy fantasy football team. Mike also harbors a crush on a cute waitress named Remy, which seems to go awry when his brother throws a salt shaker at her. The novel follows Mike as he lives the ups and downs of life in a society where he can't seem to catch a break...or can catch a break, but it always ends up being a mirage, or he's swept up in the whims and wheelings of other people. For instance, when Mike loses his landscaping job, a rich but shady dude named Chaz hires Mike to assemble bobbleheads at a factory, and grooms him to take over a new business — but Mike has no idea what it is or if it's even real. Then, he thinks he finally has a piece of good luck when he runs into a former grade school friend named Goble who's made it big selling real estate and hires Mike to landscape some big rich properties. But it soon becomes clear that Goble has had to sell his soul to sell real estate, and if Mike wants to hitch his wagon, he'll have to kill his conscience as well.

The difference between the haves and have nots, the privileged and not, is never more in stark contrast than Evison sets them in this novel. If you're a Mike Munoz — born without a silver spoon and unwilling to compromise your morals — is the willingness to work hard really enough to make it in this society that is so obviously stacked against you? Maybe, maybe not. But it's only when Mike begins to fully understand who and what he is and who and what he cares about that he starts to see the world more clearly.

These little moments of catharsis and lessons learned in Evison's novels are one of my favorite parts of his writing, as well. He makes you feel good about his characters — that they've learned lessons and have found how to be happy. And that in turn makes you happy as well. Evison doesn't always get it his dialogue exactly right and you may sort of scratch your head about a strand of plot here and there, but for the most part, Lawn Boy, like the rest of Evison's work, is a great example of a story that deals with a tough issue but when it's overcome, your faith in humanity is restored for having read about it.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Madness Is Better Than Defeat: Mayhem in the Jungle

Ned Beauman writes some of the zaniest, funniest novels I've ever read, and his newest — Madness Is Better Than Defeat — might be his zaniest, funniest, and best yet. It's the story of a temple in Honduras, and CIA agents, and shadowy secret organizations, and drugs, and Hollywood, and newspapers in the golden age of journalism, and ex-Nazis, and titans of industry, and the nature of memory, and so so so much more. I loved it, despite its un-summarize-able plot. I mean, you don't read a Ned Beauman novel and expect a straight line. Indeed, the opening scene of this novel takes place in an underground speakeasy where people are betting on a guy wrestling an octopus underwater — which (and of course Beauman knows what he's doing here) is a beautifully apt metaphor for this novel. Just when a tentacle of plot starts to make sense, another one appears to smack it down.

Beauman novels have a plot logic all their own — you just have to accept that not everything is going to make complete sense. Things just happen, sometimes loosed of logic (though they usually wind up making sense later on...but sometimes not). Beauman his own unique way of tying his twisted plot together — and believe me, there are a ton of strings to bind.

And so, the basic premise in this novel is two competing expeditions embark into the jungles of Honduras in 1938 to find an old Indian temple. A CIA agent who is telling this story 20-plus years later becomes enmeshed in these expeditions for wacky reasons. We first see him looking through a CIA warehouse in the late 1950s looking for evidence he thinks will clear him of some crime, though we don't know what that is or what he's looking for, or even how the hell he's involved with the temple expeditions. But it all becomes slowly clear-ish.

Scared off? Don't be — just be fairly warned. I fully admit Beauman is a bit of an acquired taste. I made the mistake of recommending two of his other novels, Glow and The Teleportation Accident, both of which I really loved, to just about everyone I knew. Then I was disappointed when many of those people that read them wondered if I'd lost my damn mind.

This, like his previous work, is an incredibly funny, clever novel — I just love his writing. He has no qualms about spending a page-long digression just to set up a one-line joke. He has no problem breaking the fourth wall, and then having his characters joking about breaking the fourth wall — meta on top of meta! And his wandering eye catches everything. It's easy to compare him to Pynchon for his non-sensical plots and general goofiness, but I also like to think of him as similar to David Foster Wallace in how he observes and then relates the world he's created, and also how he mixes the low- and high-brow. It took me more than three weeks to read this because I really wanted to take it slow and digest as much of this as I could. It's a spectacularly inventive book, and I highly recommend it...if you're brave.