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.

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