For those who love John Updike’s classic short story “A&P,” Jonathan Evison’s latest young adult novel “Lawn Boy” rings all the same bells. Evison tackles issues of race, sexual orientation and, most potently, class in this humorous and brutally humanist book. I’ll admit, my previous encounters with the young adult genre mostly revolved around kitschy dystopian series and John Greene tear-jerkers. I wrote off these kinds of books as commercial trash or repurposed story lines: The ever-present love triangles and competing factions and all out wars with child soldiers. “Lawn Boy” has renewed my belief that this genre can provide something deeper and appeal to college-age readers and older.
“Lawn Boy” follows 22-year-old Mike Munoz as he navigates unemployment and the politics of everyday life. His home life is unstable: His mother works all day, his father left years ago and his older brother, Nate, suffers from developmental difficulties. Besides his immediate family, an array of part-time squatters pass through the house — including a number of useless husbands and the eccentric Freddy who writes bass riffs to vintage pornography. Without a father figure, Mike looks to his friends and coworkers for advice on how to navigate the world from his foul-mouthed friend Nick, to local real-estate mogul Doug Gobel, to his fellow landscaping crew members. Along the way, Mike faces rejection after rejection and must learn the difference between making a living and selling your soul.
Since “Lawn Boy” targets a younger audience, some of its messages are a bit heavy handed. However, the earnest conversations Mike has with those around him reveals greater truths about life below the poverty line. Mike fights hard for every paycheck as people attempt to take advantage of his status. At first glance, a poor Latino landscaper sounds like the setup to a bad, racist joke, but Evison gives Mike a strong voice and a determined personality. With each knockdown, Mike gets back up and stretches as far as his circumstances allow him, even attempting to write the “Great American Landscaping Novel.” Beneath the commentary on social class and the American Dream builds a gentler, beautiful subplot that slips into focus when least expected and steals your breath away.
J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” stirred a lot of controversy for its victim-blaming representation of poor, white America. Evison avoids this same condemnation through showing how hard Mike tries to get a job, only turning down opportunities when he realizes it will strip him of his humanity. “Lawn Boy” calls into question the legitimacy of the American Dream and offers a dark contemplation on the state of affairs in forgotten portions of this country. Evison not only addresses the misleading notion of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” but also the discrimination between new and old money — further proving that money will not result in acceptance. “Lawn Boy” elevates the traditional young adult novel with its introspective narrator and avoidance of cliche, shallow plotlines. A must read.