Jonathan Evison takes a battering ram to stereotypes about race and class in his fifth novel, Lawn Boy. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale spiked with angst and anger, but also full of humor and lots of hope. Mike Muñoz is the lovable young hero of this engaging story in which people growing up outside the cushy world of the upwardly mobile get knocked down over and over ... everything leads to a lesson we can all learn: Change comes when people work together ... Life in 2018 appears to be getting more complicated for people like Mike, but Evison has written an effervescent novel of hope that can enlighten everyone.
Lawn Boy is more tough-minded than Evison’s earlier novels (All About Lulu, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!). It’s a swift, engaging read, with an alternately wry and wistful sense of humor. But it also addresses painful territory head-on, especially when it comes to American economic and cultural inequality ... In Lawn Boy, he pulls it off. The setting and characters couldn’t be more vivid. Mike, a self-described 'tenth-generation peasant with a Mexican last name,' lives with his family in Suquamish. But most of his jobs are across Agate Passage on Bainbridge Island ... It’s a sign of how well-drawn Mike’s struggles are that you want to jump into the book and help point him in the right direction. Evison eventually gives Mike a happy ending on two thoroughly unexpected fronts. If they feel a little rigged, that’s forgivable.
Evison is pointing, angrily, at the class divide in America and demanding that we recognize it. Living as we do in a city where the homeless live in tents next to opulent wealth and everyone tries as hard as they can to ignore the situation, maybe some anger is necessary, even welcome ... This isn’t a martyr’s tale, and Mike is not Poverty Jesus. As we follow Mike through Lawn Boy, we watch him make decisions that are clearly dumb. We watch him tolerate homophobia and misogyny without taking a stand. He knows better, but he falls for scams and self-delusion again and again. He’s not a hero, he’s just a young man who is trying to do the right thing, the same as any other. The difference between Mike and, say, Holden Caulfield is that Mike doesn’t have the safety net of wealth and privilege to fall back on. I whipped through Lawn Boy, and I loved every second of it.
Lawn Boy is empathetic and angry in its portrayal of class, poverty, discrimination--destroyers of dreams. But Mike perseveres--'I had poetry in my heart, goddammit'--and learns to blaze his own trail. He 'gets his mow on'; he even finds unexpected true love. As he learns that no man is an island, he's able to see increasing moments of grace with his 'ragged tribe.' In Evison's tough and wry novel, Mike Muñoz is every person who wants a living wage and a little dignity, 'the opportunity to think beyond sustenance long enough to dream.'
This tender bildungsroman follows Mike from one setback to another, each interaction involving slyly observant and brilliantly witty dialogue that also poignantly conveys vulnerability. Evison skillfully weaves the American Dream into a subtle social novel to illustrate how race and class can thwart aspiration. In his bighearted portrayal of Mike Muñoz, Evison has created an indelible human spirit content to live authentically, which just might prove to be the true American dream. For readers of Sam Lipsyte and Jonathan Tropper.
The novel has a light tone and is laugh-out-loud funny at times, but at a certain point, Mike's trials and tribulations move from comically frustrating to just frustrating. With so much going wrong for him, the reader can expect that the universe will smile on Mike eventually, but there’s only so many sick family members, unpaid bills, bad jobs, awkward situations, and thwarted plans a character can suffer through. We root for Mike while also wishing we didn’t have to root so hard. A book about triumphing over obstacles, and obstacles, and obstacles, and more obstacles.
Mike’s gradual growth into self-awareness is punctuated by moments of human kindness and grace that transpire in and among broken-down trucks, trailer parks, and strip malls. Focusing on the workers who will only ever be welcome in gated communities as hired help, Evison’s quiet novel beautifully considers the deterioration of the American Dream.