A family of bodybuilders.
A troubled caregiver, himself in need of help.
A 78-year-old widow on a surprise cruise.
Characters have always been the soul of Jonathan Evison’s stories, and his new novel — “Lawn Boy,” out April 3 from Algonquin Books — is no exception.
A coming-of-age story wrapped in a conversational critique of class and capitalism, with equal doses of humor and heart planted here and there, like well-placed topiary, the book introduces Evison’s latest personable protagonist: Mike Muñoz, a striving young Chicano hard at work — or at least looking hard for work.
Bainbridge, the author’s adopted hometown, as well as Suquamish, Indianola, Poulsbo and other parts of Kitsap County, are the settings of the story. As such, Evison, working with Eagle Harbor Book Company, has arranged for a special early release launch party to be held at 6:30 p.m. Monday, April 2 at Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network.
Visit www.bainbridgebarn.wildapricot.org/event-2847071 to register to attend, or go to www.www.eagleharborbooks.com/event/book-launch-barn-jonathan- evison to learn more and purchase a copy. Enter the coupon code LAWN at checkout and receive a 20 percent discount.
The party will feature pizza, local beer, a short reading and Q&A by Evison and music, a lineup of curated vinyl, all records chosen from Evison’s own collection, being spun by Bainbridge’s Gary Bedell — aka DJ Sidecar.
Recently, Evison — who Sherman Alexie once called “the most honest white man alive” — chatted with the Review about privilege, politics, the work of writing and the joys of mowing the lawn.
Why BARN, why Bainbridge?
Evison said he chose to have the launch event for his latest book at BARN to honor the new facility — and the community that built it.
“I just kind of wanted to celebrate the fact that we have something like that,” he said. “I’m kind of a staple of Bainbridge Island. The bookstore is a staple of Bainbridge Island. Now, we’ve got this beautiful new facility that not everybody necessarily knows about right away. So, it just seemed like a good opportunity to bring all these local elements together and just kind of celebrate the BARN, as well as my book, as well as the bookstore, as well as the local DJ, as well as some local beer; just celebrate Bainbridge and not make it so much about me. I’m kind of sick of that. I’ll have to do that for the next two months everywhere I go, so I want my hometown party to keep it a little realer.
“I don’t want it to be me just yapping at everybody for an hour and a half,” Evison said. “I’ve had so much support on Bainbridge Island. I feel so blessed to have had the support I’ve had. I sell more books out of [Eagle Harbor Book Company] than I do in Manhattan. I would rather thank the community by having the party and generally celebrating it instead of making it like this is me talking at you.”
‘Getting My Mow On’
Evison writes much about the joys of manual labor — especially landscaping, one of his own many past careers — in “Lawn Boy,” and the unique kind of instant gratification that comes with mowing the grass. But it’s not merely rose-tinted recollections behind the sweat-stained prose.
“I remember it from right now,” Evison said. “I’ve got six acres in Sequim and half of it’s fields. I’m meticulous about my lawn. My edges are a little lazy … but my lawn looks great.
“The whole world slows down when you’re mowing a lawn,” he explained. “People that don’t mow their lawns are missing out.”
It’s not the same with writing, the author said. Page-by-page is a very different kind of progress.
“You don’t really even want to look back most of the time [in writing],” he said. “Because you know there’s a bunch of messy stuff back there. At some point there are different satisfactions, they’re a little more nuanced. I think that’s what’s so great about the lawn, it’s just so tactile. If I have a really great day of writing it might feel like that, but, generally, it’s a much more messy undertaking.”
Write what you want to read
There’s a scene in “Lawn Boy” when Mike begins to doubt if anyone would even read the Great American Landscaping Novel, should he write it.
Who’d read it?
“You,” a friend tells him.
Evison said it’s much the same for himself. When starting a project, he writes what he wants to read.
“I’m always saying how the reader is the best tool in my belt and it really is a dance; the reader’s doing everything I’m doing backwards and in heels,” Evison said. “But I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, this is for the 18-45 female demographic.’ That reader’s literally just me and what I want out of a book.
“What that does is keep me honest. When you’re just authorial about it, and you’re not thinking about the reader, that’s how all bad writing happens. It happens a million different ways, but it all has that thing in common: They’re not thinking about the reader.
“I feel like it’s the same way with the mower, too. I always felt like I was working with the mower. You can tell a good mower. Some guys are just klutzy with the mower, you can just see it every time they turn the corner, and some guys just handle that thing like they’re Lindy Hoping.
Moving on, moving up
“Lawn Boy” deals with some very timely topics, such as wealth disparity, race and class. Appropriate as its publication date became, Evison’s already been working on bigger, more ambitious things.
“I’ve written two novels since I finished [“Lawn Boy”],” he said. “One of them I threw away, and one of them is this monstrous 500-page companion to ‘West of Here.’”
Busy as he is, or with his attention on new projects, discussing past works is somehow never strange, Evison said. Every story sticks with him through the next one. Even his first novel, “All About Lulu,” which just passed the 10-year-anniversary of initial publication, is as familiar now as it ever was.
“It’s been 10 years, probably 12 or 13 since I wrote it, and I picked the book back up and I still felt like it was part of me,” he said. “I never feel that distant. They still live inside of me.”
Evison junked several early novels on his path to improvement, in addition to the latest he recently “threw away.” He’s never been afraid to scrap something, the important thing, he said, is to finish what you start — in writing and in life.
“The first four of five books, I felt like, are learning, getting good,” he said. “But I always approached it like you have to finish the job, you know what I mean? Even if I knew it sucked halfway through, I still got to suck at writing a sucky ending so I can suck half as much the next time. I always believed in following through because you have to learn every part of the process.”
Character is key; plot comes later
Evison said that for him character is first and foremost in any story.
“To me, plot is a sub-section of character,” he said. “It’s all about character and the character’s destiny and a character’s conflicts and a character’s stakes and a character’s obstacles, and then the plot is born out of that. You’re just trying to get your character from his reality to his idealized reality and everything else is a big obstacle course.”
Hollywood agrees, apparently.
Evison’s “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving” was recently adapted for the screen, and most of his other novels, he said, have been optioned as well — despite the fact that, in his own words, not a lot seems to happen.
“They adapt really well to film, but it’s not because I concentrate on scene that much,” Evison said. “I’ve noticed that reviewers say stuff like, ‘It’s weird, because he’ll have a lot of scenes where people are just talking in cars of sitting in a cafe.’ All the stuff you’re not supposed to do. But the scenes move like crazy because there’s a repartee between the characters. There’s so much at stake and I’m subverting the dialogue and making the reader kind of actively see, ‘Oh, this conversation is really about the stuff they’re not talking about.’ There’s so much to keep the reader busy, it’s just a different way of keeping them busy than throwing helicopters at them.”
Also, he said, stars make movies these days — and Evison writes roles.
“I guess maybe I approach it a little bit more like a playwright in a way,” he said. “I think the reason it keeps happening for my books is because they’re character-driven, because the roles are so good. Because what drives Hollywood? Stars drive Hollywood. Actors drive Hollywood more than the auteur does at this point.
“A character like Harriet (from ‘This is your life, Harriet Chance!’) is just such a great vehicle for how many great women actors of that age? I think that’s why it happens. It’s not because they’re visually stunning.”
A true class act
“Lawn Boy” deals directly with issues of class and income disparity, themes snatched from the headlines.
“You know how many people are living in their cars now?” Evison said. “People that have jobs. Chefs. Adjunct professors … Somebody showed me a video in Southern California and the video went on for like seven minutes of driving at 30 miles an hour, so it was just like three miles of tent city on both sides.
“These are the times we’re living in,” he said. “And it’s only going to get worse. Capitalism will kill the world eventually just because labor is disposable.”
The protagonist of “Lawn Boy,” is a bit of a bookworm. Describing his reading habits gave Evison a chance to name-drop some personal faves, and though Mike laments the lack of the “Great American Landscape Novel,” Evison has some recommendations for real overlooked choice tomes you might consider cracking.
Frank Norris gets a few nods in “Lawn Boy.” Specifically, his penultimate novel, “The Octopus: A Story of California” (1901), inspires some rumination by Mike. Though he died young, at 32, the journalist/author’s sparse body of fictional work had a big impact on the naturalist movement.
“McTeague” (1899), perhaps his best known book, is “one of my all-time favorite novels,” Evison said.
“What Makes Sammy Run?” by Budd Schulberg
Evison: “A book that I love, that I’m always championing. It saw a lot of readers in it’s day, but to me, for my money, it’s kind of like the Great American Novel, really.
“I think that if ‘The Great Gatsby’ is sort of the WASP-y Great American Novel, Budd Schulberg’s ‘What Makes Sammy Run?’ is kind of the American immigrant’s Great American Novel.
“It’s really gritty. It’s got journalism, it’s got a ‘30s writers’ strike. It’s got politics. It’s got the Jewish-American immigration experience. It’s a pretty amazing novel and for whatever reason it’s kind of gone out of vogue and people don’t really talk about it.”