“I always wanted to write a novel about class in America,” said Jonathan Evison, whose “Lawn Boy” was born from a blog he started writing, called “Mike Muñoz Saves the World!”
“What I wanted was a book written by a guy who worked as a landscaper or a cannery grunt or a guy who installed heating vents. Something about modern class struggle in the trenches. Something plainspoken, without all the shiver-thin coverlets of snow and all the rest of that luminous prose. Something that didn’t have a pretentious quote at the beginning from some old geezer poet that gave away the whole point of the book. Something that didn’t employ the ‘fishbowl lens’ or a ‘prismatic narrative structure’ or any of that crap they teach rich kids out in the cornfields.”
Those words come from Mike Muñoz, the 22-year-old landscaper who’s the central character of local author Jonathan Evison’s irresistible new novel “Lawn Boy,” set in Bainbridge and North Kitsap. At the library, Mike’s vainly in search of a book about someone like himself. Finally, he concludes, “Maybe I should write the goddamn Great American Landscaping Novel.”
You might say that’s exactly what Evison did with “Lawn Boy,” in which Mike becomes the hero of his own story. The son of a hardworking single mother (who unwinds with “tumblers of chardonnay”), Mike scrambles for work while helping to take care of his developmentally disabled brother. He loves to read, and likes the idea of writing, but who’s got the time when there’s exactly $2.03 in your bank account and you’ve walked out on your landscaping job because you didn’t want to clean up after a customer’s dog? Mike’s life is challenging, but it’s also funny, honest and real.
“I always wanted to write a novel about class in America,” said Evison, speaking from his Bainbridge home earlier this month. “Lawn Boy” was born from a blog Evison started writing, called “Mike Muñoz Saves the World!” It was written in Mike’s voice, “the daily rigamarole under his boss, his complaints about wealth disparity and the working poor, and as I got further into it, I thought, this is all I need, one irreverent working-class voice to tell this story.”
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The character of Mike was inspired by Evison’s nephew — “I’ve raised him like my son”— who’s roughly Mike’s age and who, like Mike, is biracial. “His experiences really informed me,” said Evison, who wanted to create the character by “delving into that territory without appropriating it. I wanted to kind of show how race and class can really just thwart expectation and opportunity.”
But it sounds as if there’s plenty of Evison in Mike as well. A Bainbridge resident since 1976, when he was 8 years old — “my old man moved us up here and dropped us off and moved back to California” — Evison also grew up with a financially struggling single mother. He was, however, a very early writer, ever since a kind third-grade teacher noticed that the little boy who was acting out did better when he was allowed to be alone with pen and paper.
“She saved my life,” said Evison now. “She let me sit in a corner all year and write, nurtured that. She made a writer out of me.”
Still on Bainbridge, Evison’s now a married father of three, and a published author of five novels. His first, “All About Lulu,” won the Washington State Book Award in 2008 (it’s now being re-released in a 10th anniversary edition). His second, “West of Here,” was a New York Times best-seller; his third, “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving,” became a movie; and his fourth, “This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!” was a finalist for the 2015 Pacific Northwest Bookseller Award and also has a movie deal.
But before “All About Lulu” saw print 10 years ago, there was struggle — eight unpublished books (“You don’t get good without practicing,” Evison noted; a lesson he learned from sports) and a lot of life experience. Evison didn’t follow the frequent author path of college-and-MFA-program; instead, he “screwed around in a couple of community colleges” and made money any way he could.
“I’ve had a million jobs,” he said, laughing. “I telemarketed sunglasses, I hacked up roadkill. I sorted rotten tomatoes, I worked on car lots, landscaping, caregiving, gas meters, bartender, waiter. Every job you can think of, I had.”
Landscaping, especially, left a mark: “There’s immediate gratification of mowing a lawn . . . So much (work is) thankless nebulous paper pushing, inching towards a goal with no visible results. With a lawnmower all you have to do is look back over your shoulder — it’s clean.”
But all of those jobs brought details that he mentally filed away to perhaps later flavor a character, or a moment, in his fiction. “The stuff that’s really good will stick, or it will come out when I need it.”
Irreverent and delightfully fast-talking in an interview, Evison’s clearly one of those lucky people who’s finally found a way to make a living at what he loves. “All my dreams have come true,” he said. It seems like he can’t write fast enough: His next novel after “Lawn Boy,” tentatively titled “Legends of the North Cascades,” is pretty much done (part of it takes place in prehistoric times; part of it in a modern-day, fictionalized Port Angeles). And he’s already at work on the next one, crafting character sketches for an ambitious, around-the-world novel and “trying to find the mechanism” to connect them.
Though he loves all of his characters, he said he especially enjoyed entering the world of “Lawn Boy” and spending time with its inhabitants. Particularly Freddy, a supporting character of infinite wisdom (and sketchy taste in 1980s porn) who wanders around Mike’s mother’s house in stretched-out underwear — a man of “nobility and grace,” said Evison, “but he looks like a stooge on the surface.”
“They feel like real people to me,” said Evison, of his characters. “I lovingly create them, accept their flaws, and set them loose in the narrative landscape and let the world beat them up a little as they inch themselves closer to self-realization.” Some critics, intending to be complimentary, have called his characters losers; Evison respectfully disagrees.
“I feel like they’re humans,” he said, “doing the best they can.”
Jonathan Evison will speak at the “Lawn Boy” launch party at 6:30 p.m. Monday, April 2, at Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network, 8890 Three Tree Lane NE, Bainbridge Island; eagleharborbooks.com, 206-842-5332. Other local appearances by Evison include: 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 10 at University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; ubookstore.com, 206-634-3400; 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 25, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; thirdplacebooks.com, 206-366-3333; 7 p.m. Thursday, April 26, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; elliottbaybook.com, 206-624-6600; and 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 3, at Island Books, 3014 78th Ave. S.E., Mercer Island; mercerislandbooks.com, 206-232-6920).