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. His deadbeat dad begins crushing his son’s spirit early. When 5-year-old Mike begs for a trip to Disneyland, Mr. Muñoz drives them to the nearby Bremerton, Wash., waterfront, where instead of “the Happiest Place on Earth,” Mike is treated to “the stench of dead clams and urine.” Peering around for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, his father says, “Looks like they moved.”
The emotional beat-downs continue for Mike in his job as a landscaper. His boss pays him low wages, and wealthy white clients insist he do odd jobs that have nothing to do with lawn mowing or pruning. Mike ends up unemployed after a customer complains that Mike won’t pick up his Saint Bernard’s poo.
After filling out applications for low-wage jobs at CVS, Subway and KFC, Mike wonders what happened to all the work for smart, reliable young people. “Wasn’t the American Dream built on the idea of equal opportunity? So where was my opportunity? I wasn’t asking for handouts. All I wanted was a job that provided a living wage and a little dignity.” Beyond needing money to survive — he’s living in a shed behind his mom’s double-wide — Mike is moved by the social novels of Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair and dreams of writing “the Great American Landscaping Novel.”
“I tried to imagine bigger and better things for Mike Muñoz,” he says of himself. “A new job, a new truck, my own place, a real novel with my name on it. But the thing of it is, I don’t really know how to think big. God knows, nobody ever taught me.”
And he’s constantly reminded of what it means to be brown in America. A local entrepreneur wants Mike to be the frontman for his landscaping business because his clients will feel better about dealing with someone who’s not 100 percent Mexican. “I’m fine with Mexicans,” he tells Mike. “I just ate at Casa Rojas the other day. And yeah, I know you’re Mexican. But not Mexican Mexican. Not that it makes a difference — to me, anyway. Besides, you don’t look too Mexican, that’s the important thing.”
Mike is subjected to a galling revelation when he meets a young white man whose wealthy family considers him “an unmitigated failure” for not fulfilling his lifelong dream of publishing a book of poetry. But he tells Mike that his dream of writing a novel is a different matter. “ ‘Already you’re exceeding anybody’s expectations of you, am I right?’ He was right, of course. The bar was set pretty low for old Mike Muñoz.”
Evison drops more surprises and disappointments into Mike’s life, including a game-changing romance. And everything leads to a lesson we can all learn: Change comes when people work together. “Whoever you are,” Mike says, “whatever your last name is, wherever you came from, whichever way you swing, whatever is standing in your way, just remember: You’re bigger than that. Like the man said: You contain multitudes.”
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.
Carol Memmott, a freelance book critic, lives in Northern Virginia.
By Jonathan Evison
Algonquin. 312 pp. $26.95