Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, review by Shirley Wells
In his own humorous style, Jonathan Evison delivers a serious yet engaging account of American economic, racial, and cultural inequality that is based, in part, on his own youth.
Twenty-two-year-old Mike Munoz, the likeable protagonist of Lawn Boy, is a self-described “tenth-generation peasant with a Mexican last name.” He lives in the lower-middle-class community of Suquamish, Washington, in a shed behind his mom’s double-wide trailer and works as a landscaper for the affluent residents of Bainbridge Island. Working for low wages, he’s a skilled gardener whose wealthy clients expect him to also do menial jobs, such as picking up dog poop. His dignified refusal to do so gets him fired.
In Mike’s world, there are no safety nets, and he gets knocked down repeatedly, sometimes as a result of his own questionable choices--mostly the type of bad decisions so common in one’s youth. Even as he picks himself up over and over again, Mike wonders what happened to all the jobs for smart, dependable young people like himself: “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.”
Mike doesn’t fit the stereotype of a “lawn boy” as he reads social novels such as The Octopus by Frank Norris and The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and wants to write “the Great American Landscaping Novel.” But he’s never far from the reality of what it means to be poor and brown in America. When a local man suggests that Mike become the front man for his landscaping business, it’s because Mike doesn’t “look too Mexican.” He’s not “Mexican Mexican” which the landscaper feels will appease his white clients.
Mike realizes that “I tried to imagine bigger and better things for [myself]. 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.” Just when it seems Mike will never get a break, he does. He’s finally able to envision his future and his place in it. One of the lessons Mike learns--that could benefit us all--is that change only comes when people work together.
Fans of Evison’s previous four novels know that he is a master at creating well-drawn characters and situations. In Lawn Boy, he offers a painfully honest yet loving and ultimately hopeful portrait of one young man's struggle to overcome the hand he's been dealt in life and reach for his dreams.