Whatever it is, a Jonathan Evision reading is not your boilerplate talk, at which he reads a passage and has an awkward question session after. On his tour for his first novel, All About Lulu, Bainbridge Island author Jonathan Evison figured he spent nearly his whole advance on Jell-O shots and beer for the audience. Earlier this month he kicked off his Lawn Boy book tour with a party at the Barn on Bainbridge. Now, over the course of the week, Evison will stage a homecoming for the tour. Wednesday, April 25 at 7pm he reads at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Thursday, April 26 he heads to Elliott Bay Book Company. Saturday he’s on an author panel with Terry Tazioli and Mary Ann Gwinn at University Book Store from 3-5pm. And Thursday May 2 he reads at Island Books on Mercer Island at 6:30PM.
Evison is an outspoken reading presence, but Lawn Boy itself is strong enough to warrant attendance. The novel is an energetic inquiry into class, race, sexuality, economics, and growing up that’s also engaging and digestible. It's a beach read about big topics. Mike Muñoz—a 22-year-old self-described "tenth-generation peasant with a Mexican last name, raised by a single mom on an Indian reservation"—lives on Bainbridge and is something of a topiary wunderkind for a landscaping company until he gets fired for flinging dog poop at his employer’s window (it wasn't part of his job to pick up poop). What unfolds is a bildungsroman of odd jobs and misadventures that can read somewhat like a naturalist George Saunders. Muñoz falls in love, tries to write the Great American Landscaping Novel, learns to contend with his bigot friend, and deals with the complexities of identity: dating a woman who works at his local diner while repeatedly considering the sexual encounter he had with another boy when they were ten, having Mexican heritage without identifying as solely Mexican.
“Technically, my dad was born in California,” Muñoz says.
Likely the book won’t pin you to your chair with complex abstract insight on class and coming of age—that’d fly in the face of its workaday heart. Its insights are direct. Repeatedly, Muñzo discusses “MFA fiction,” which here means technically refined but soulless. The rants against MFA fiction read as dispatches straight from Evison; at an April 10 reading at University Bookstore he admitted as much: “I don’t know what happened to populist fiction in America.” It’s a valid criticism—the academicization of contemporary writers has homogenizing repercussions, both in the quality of books and in the vaunting of people who have the money, time, privilege, awareness, etc. to go to an MFA in the first place. The first time it comes up it rings true, but by the fourth time, Evison’s return to it feels like repetitious harping, a grudge match with the academy.
The everyman book which that philosophy yields, the directness of its insights, can occasionally feel too broad. After Muñzo tells his homophobic friend Nick about his encounter as a ten year old, they have the following exchange:
"That's it? That was the last one?"
"Does it matter?"
Nick took a slug and handed the bottle back, considering me in the dusky light, like he was looking for a different Mike.
"Fuck it," he said. "I guess not. Just stop talking about it. So, you think our offensive line is going to be shit again?"
This portrait of squeamish American male laconicism isn't inaccurate, exactly, but Evison's handling of it is on-the-nose that it feels simplistic.
Nevertheless, Lawn Boy is the sort of book I wouldn't mind seeing in the hands of high school students, where such reductiveness could land as recognition and at least start valuable conversations around identity and class (provided parents suddenly got really cool with a certain amount of scabrousness). It's an angry, yet ultimately good-hearted novel—a summer read that treats seemingly insurmountable issues with a degree of hope. Despair is so MFA, anyway.