A voice for the overlooked

Writer Jonathan Evison flips the American Dream narrative upside-down.

 

MIDWAY THROUGH THE BOOK TOUR for his fifth novel, Lawn Boy, on a blustery April evening, California-born writer Jonathan Evison stops at the Tattered Cover in Denver. Seven people have braved a high-wind warning to come out. Evison wears his tour uniform: a black hat, Chuck Taylors and a plaid blazer with red, navy and yellow stripes. “This is the best tour jacket,” he says. “It hides all stains: mustard, beer, coffee.”

Although he looks road-weary, Evison treats the small gathering at the Colfax Avenue store exactly as he does the packed rooms that regularly greet him at indie bookstores throughout the West: He reads a little from his novel, answers questions and spills his guts. If you take the trouble to come see him, he’ll give you everything he’s got.

He talks about growing up poor surrounded by wealthier people. “My dad brought us up to Bainbridge Island and then left us there,” he says. His mom raised five kids alone. Evison’s older sister died in a car wreck, a loss that informs his third novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. Evison discusses how he wrote eight books — three of which he literally buried in his backyard — before he published his first, All About Lulu, in 2008. He speaks quickly, flitting from one idea to the next. The focused concentration of writing, he says, helps him manage his bipolar disorder: “Without writing, I’d be an IV drug user or out yelling at parking meters.” 

Andrew Toth/Getty Images

EVISON’S NEW NOVEL, Lawn Boy, like many of his books, draws on his work experiences. Evison, who never went to college, laments that “there are no working-class people in the arts.” Instead, after spending his teenage years in Seattle punk bands, he worked a variety of blue-collar jobs. One of his favorite gigs was as a landscaper on Bainbridge Island. Mowing, like writing, gave him focused activity that could “soothe my popcorn brain.”

But he resented the way people treated him. “I was a skilled tradesperson, and wealthy people didn’t remember my name. Old ladies tried to get me to take out the trash or wash a car. One had a 200-pound St. Bernard that left elephant-sized turds everywhere she wanted me to pick up.”

Evison recreates this scene at a pivotal moment in Lawn Boy, when its narrator, 22-year-old Mike Muñoz, is ordered to collect dog droppings with a paper bag in the rain. Although Mike has few resources — he’s poor and lives with his mother and disabled brother — he quits and vows to search for something better.

Evison’s writing voice is earnest, authentic, endearing and hilarious, and he’s at his best in Lawn Boy. “Wasn’t the American dream built on the idea of equal opportunity?” Muñoz asks. “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.”

Evison started writing Lawn Boy when a different novel he was under contract for faltered. “There was no heartbeat. I decided to throw it away, and I was terrified to tell anybody. I was in a funk.” Evison started an anonymous blog, Mike Muñoz Saves the World, for a creative outlet. He drew on his landscaping years and his experiences helping to raise his nephews, who are biracial, to create Mike’s voice. When he’d written 20,000 words, he realized it could become a novel.

The plot of Lawn Boy could be described as picaresque, with Mike getting a job and then losing it, briefly having enough money and then blowing it on an emergency. But this honestly reflects how a lot of people live. “All our lives are episodic,” Evison said over the phone in July from the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, where he’s been teaching for years. “That’s OK. Mike’s psychic, spiritual and social consciousness are not static. The interiority of Mike changes as he awakens.”

Evison still lives on Bainbridge Island with his wife, Lauren, and his kids — Owen, Emma, and Lulu. “It’s rural and jaw-droppingly beautiful. I can walk around in the woods all day, but still have access to Seattle.” Now he’s no longer a poor kid living on the margins of this wealthy community; he’s an accomplished — and recognized — hometown hero. “I don’t resent the people I grew up with,” he says. “They’re super supportive. Every time I drop a book, hundreds of people show up. But it’s wealthier than ever.”

As long as income inequality continues to rise, Jonathan Evison will remain an essential literary voice, writing with acute wit, empathy and insight about the people society too often overlooks, including the disabled (The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving), the elderly (This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!), and of course, the lawn boy. 

Jenny Shank’s novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian and McSweeney’s. She is on the faculty of the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver.

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