I tend to think of “coming of age” novels as those in which a teenager starts finding his/her stride, discovering what’s important in life and making some meaningful moves towards growth and change. For some reason (probably because there are so many of them for which this is true), the COA novel has become synonymous in my mind with boarding school books, i.e., the kid who survives the trials and tribs of that rarefied atmosphere and comes out better on the other side. I’m thinking of books like Brutal Youth, by Anthony Breznican, The Mockingbirds, by Daisy Whitney, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart, books in which the artificially fraught surroundings of the protagonists mold or shape them in some way.
Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison, is nothing like that.
First of all, the protagonist is already 22. He’s probably never owned a proper striped tie, and (in his easygoing way) would view all the inhabitants of those stories as effete slackers. Or perhaps I’m wrong—perhaps he would wistfully wish to be one of them, reading his way through the school library and finding a kindred soul with whom he could discuss the books he loves.
The truth is, Miguel “Mike” Muñoz is himself kind of a slacker. He loves his work as a landscape guy (but won’t call himself an “artist,” he just does his thing) and takes inordinate pride in a uniformly mown lawn, pristine edges, raked beds, and well-trimmed hedges. His secret desire is to let loose his knack for making shrubbery sculptures (topiary), but nobody is interested in those skills.
Mike starts life way down low on the spectrum. He lives with his mother, who is divorced and works every shift she can pick up at the local tavern; his older brother is developmentally disabled and has the mind of a petulant five-year-old inside the body of a well-fed moose; his father gave up all responsibility long ago and never looked back; and Mike is stuck holding the bag a lot. He serves as his brother’s care-giver and minder five days out of seven while his mom is working, precluding much of a social life. His boss is the worst, and the first moment of reckless clarity in Mike’s life comes when he rebels against picking up dog shit (it’s a Saint Bernard, to give perspective) and quits. But unlike those with a side hustle or a skill, Mike doesn’t really have the luxury of quitting a job, lousy pay and conditions or not—he has no experience in sales, can’t fix a car or wield a hammer—and soon he is desperately seeking out any job on offer. He gets a helping hand from a few unlikely people, but is then beaten down again when the so-called help turns out to be self-interest on his “savior’s” part and Mike once more gets the shaft.
There were many things to like about this book. As the narrator, Mike is conversational, funny, and honest, and his narrative sucks you over to his side even as you see all the ridiculous mistakes he makes in his attempts to get by. You really experience things from the perspective of starting from nothing—knowing what it means to go hungry, to have to share a space with way too many people, to take two steps back for every step forward. There’s a scene where he’s on his way to a new landscaping job when his truck, on its last legs for years now, simply gives up the ghost. Mike doesn’t have money to fix it, or even to tow it away, so he puts the key under the mat, pries the vin number tag out of the dashboard, unloads his lawn mower and a few precious tools, and abandons his ride to march home down the highway, pushing the mower along the verge. It’s a symbolic scene of how things go for him.
This is not your typical story of a guy who wants to rise from the ashes to make a million and set himself up in a McMansion, either—Mike just wants to afford minutes for his cellphone, and move out of the garden shed in his mom’s back yard. He wants to be able to sit and read for as long as he wants, to buy what he’d like to eat instead of what he can afford, to treat his friends to a beer or two. In this way he is at odds with the people in his story who exploit him on their own way to their perception of success. They don’t understand why he isn’t driven, like they are, or motivated by money to stick with a job they hate, yielding a lifestyle they don’t have time to enjoy.
This book has a lot to say about the structures and classes of people in our society, showcasing the lives of the privileged vs. those of the poor, whether they be white, brown, or black. It exposes the “by his bootstraps” philosophy as the fallacy it is for many or most people, and shows what those people who do embrace that philosophy are willing (or have) to do to make it come true, usually not such a pretty picture.
I did grow a bit impatient with Mike, because every time he encountered Tito, his former mate from the landscaping business and heard his tale of woe about low pay and bad conditions, I was silently thinking, There, Mike, there is your solution! but he didn’t pick up on it. I loved the relationship in which he eventually finds himself, so unconventional and yet so true to his innocent personality that takes people at face value and works with their quirks and flaws (such as his racist, homophobic friend Nick). Over all, experiencing this narrative was a delightful outtake in a run of more typical reading for me. It was my first book by Jonathan Evison, but I don’t think it will be my last. It also contained a love letter to librarians, which pushed it over the top in my estimation! (And I loved the cover.)