Novels are economic artifacts. Some of the greatest novels of all time - books by Dickens, Steinbeck, and Allison come immediately to mind -were lauded because the authors wrote beautifully and knowingly about the lives of poor people. But walk around a bookstore reading dust jackets today and you'll see that an overwhelming majority of the novels that land on bestseller lists are about the middle class and the upper middle class. Somewhere along the way, novelists forgot about poverty.
Why is this? Well, the crassest reason is that publishing is a business and poor people, by definition, don't have much money to budget toward books. But Americans have also gotten very good at pretending poor people don't exist.
Class in America, simply, is getting weird.
Inequality has been widening too fast and for too long, and now we're so far apart that we can't even recognize each other. Rich Americans are tended to by a fleet of Uber drivers and masseuses and manicurists and delivery drivers, but they don't take a second to think about where those people go at night. A novel about an Uber driver keeping three jobs would be as mysterious to an upper-class reader of literary fiction as a science fiction novel. Think about that person? Ugh, do I have to?
Bainbridge Island writer Jonathan Evison's latest novel, Lawn Boy is about that kind of forgotten person. Mike Muñoz is a landscaper on Bainbridge, a perennially poor young man who trims the lawns of the island's wealthiest residents. At 22 years old, he lives at home with his mother and his developmentally disabled brother, Nate. In the beginning of the book, Mike is tending to Nate when his mother comes home:
She set her purse down on the dining-room table and proceeded straight to the kitchen for a tumbler of chardonnay with ice. That's pretty much her go-to. But don't judge her. Let's see you take it on the chin from three husbands, your boss, the state, the insurance companies, and anyone else who stands in your way. Let's see you bring home the bacon, get slapped on the ass all night, do zero self-care, take three vacations in twenty-five years, and not make a mess of raising kids all by yourself.
If Mike sounds resentful and angry in that paragraph, well, that's because he is. And that's part of the reason why Lawn Boy works: Evison is pointing, angrily, at the class divide in America and demanding that we recognize it. Living as we do in a city where the homeless live in tents next to opulent wealth and everyone tries as hard as they can to ignore the situation, maybe some anger is necessary, even welcome.
All our Tuesday accounts are located across the Agate Passage on Bainbridge. We call the bridge the service entrance because virtually nobody on the island, as far as I can tell, mows their own lawn or maintains their own pool or cleans their own gutters. Nobody drives a broke-dick truck, either, unless unless it's from 1957. Even the high-school kids - with names like Asher and Towner - drive new cars. They seem happy and healthy, if not a little bored. They all appear harmless enough on the surface, except that most of them don't seem to realize how good they've got it or how people less fortunate than themselves have helped account for their good fortune, have even suffered, so that they can enjoy their wealth and security.
Now that's some transgressive shit right there. Not just pointing out that the wealthy are comfortable, but that they're comfortable in part because they're taking from the poor? It's alarming. It's audacious. It also happens to be true.
I want to be clear, though: this is not an Angry Young Man novel. Mike doesn't want to burn everything down and start over. He just wants a shot at a life that he knows he can earn. He thinks he might be able to write a novel. He loves to read. He really likes topiary art. He's a good friend, a decent human being, and an all-around sweet kid. He takes care of his brother in a few scenes that recall the big-hearted appeal of Evison's best novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. So, yeah, he's angry, but not by temperament.
"Maybe I should write the goddamn Great American Landscaping Novel," Mike muses. "After all, most of us are mowing someone else's lawn, one way or another." Mike's energy is clearly Evison's own. Evison knows he's writing a book that some might consider a Molotov cocktail right in the windows of the landed MFA gentry, and he's having a blast while he does it. Evison, who worked as a landscaper, likely knows what it's like to have the exact amount in your savings account burned into your brain like a brand, and he wants to get that feeling across to others who may not have experienced it.
This isn't a martyr's tale, and Mike is not Poverty Jesus. As we follow Mike through Lawn Boy, we watch him make decisions that are clearly dumb. We watch him tolerate homophobia and misogyny without taking a stand. He knows better, but he falls for scams and self-delusion again and again. He's not a hero, he's just a young man who is trying to do the right thing, the same as any other. The difference between Mike and, say, Holden Caulfield is that Mike doesn't have the safety net of wealth and privilege to fall back on.
I whipped through Lawn Boy, and I loved every second of it. Evison's enthusiasm for his protagonist and his book's message is evident on every page. It's the kind of book that elbows its way into your head and forces you to think about your world in a new way. If you're in the middle or upper classes, rather than casting your guilty eyes away from the Mike Muñozes on public transportation, Lawn Boy wants you to make eye contact with them, start a conversation.
Some might interpret the moments in Lawn Boy when Mike lectures the reader as too preachy, or too political. To those people, I'd point to all those novels on the new-release table about upper-middle-class American families torn apart by infidelities and ask them: aren't those political novels, too? Don't those novels have an economic message for their readers? And isn't it about goddamned time someone pointed that out?
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant