54 pages 1 hour read

Jonathan Evison

Lawn Boy

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


Lawn Boy (2018) is a coming-of-age novel by Jonathan Evison. It is about a young man from an impoverished background who struggles to find himself and achieve his dreams while battling economic obstacles and his own self-doubts. Mike Muñoz, the half-Mexican, 22-year-old protagonist, grows up in a single-parent home on an Indian reservation in Washington State. He envisions writing the Great American Landscaping Novel, a goal that would combine his passions for landscape work, topiary art, and writing. However, he must overcome a lack of self-confidence stemming from his poor upbringing to achieve his dreams. Meanwhile, Mike’s journey through a world of landscaping jobs and charlatan employers is full of gallows humor.

The book won an Alex Award from the Young Adult Library Association for “books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.” (“Alex Awards.” American Library Association.) However, it has also been banned from some school libraries because of its sexually explicit scenes and profanity.

Evison drew on his own personal experience for much of the novel. Evison grew up in a poor family in Bainbridge Island, Washington, where most of the novel takes place. Like the novel’s protagonist, Evison’s father abandoned the family, leaving his mother to raise four kids on her own. In an essay in the back of the book, Evison describes being broke before he became a bestselling author. His other books include the New York Times bestseller West of Here (2011), All About Lulu (2008), The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (2012), and This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! (2015). He lives with his wife and family in Washington State.

This guide refers to the 2019 paperback edition.

Content Warning: This guide contains descriptions of sexual situations, anti-gay slurs, and profanity. As context for criticisms of the novel, the guide also contains brief discussions of pedophilia.

Plot Summary

The story opens with Mike Muñoz recalling his childhood dream to go to Disneyland. His father cruelly thwarts that dream by tricking five-year-old Mike into thinking he is taking him to Disneyland. Instead, his father takes him to an old naval shipyard and tells him that Disneyland must have moved. Mike recalls how he was so disappointed he cried on the way home.

The shipyard scene is one of several flashbacks that provide backstory and highlight Mike’s difficult upbringing. Mike also remembers when his family lost their house on the reservation because of a steep rent hike and had to live out of a 1987 Astro van and shower in a state park. Additionally, Mike recalls the last time he saw his father before he abandoned the family. His father told 11-year-old Mike that he never wanted children, and that it wasn’t Mike’s fault that he couldn’t deal with being a father.

In the present, Mike, now a 22-year-old man, lives with his single mom on an Indian reservation. He loves to read and goes through two to four books a week. Mike usually chooses books with underdog characters who are fighting against big, powerful forces of greed or oppression, as he personally relates to their struggles. One novel that he mentions more than once is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a story about the cruel, exploitative conditions of Chicago meatpacking workers in the early 20th century. Mike also spends a lot of his free time looking after his special-needs brother Nate while his mother works extra shifts to try to keep up with the bills.

When he has time, Mike hangs out at Mitzel’s, a local restaurant, where he has been flirting with a waitress named Remy. Remy is clearly open to a relationship with Mike, yet he hesitates at every step. Early in the novel, Mike questions himself about why he hasn’t asked Remy out. His friend Nick also berates Mike about not asking Remy out. During one outing at Mitzel’s, Nick makes an anti-gay comment about a patron, and Mike objects to it. Nick’s homophobia makes Mike remember a secret from his childhood: In the fourth grade, he had a sexual encounter with another fourth-grade boy.

Mike enjoys landscaping work. He is often creative with his yard work, shaping shrubs into geometric shapes and animals. On his family’s property, he carved a “merman,” which he describes as a mermaid with a penis. He works for a landscaping company. Some of the clients are rich and entitled, and demand that the lawn crew perform tasks that have nothing to do with landscaping. When Mike’s boss asks him to clean dog poop off a deck for a client, Mike is frustrated and disgusted. He tries to perform the task in the rain and walks off the job. The next day, his boss fires him.

Now unemployed, Mike retreats to his refuge—the library. He develops a relationship with a young librarian around his age named Andrew, who recommends books for him. During this period, Mike also applies for a job at Subway and at a small newspaper but does not get any offers. Meanwhile, Mike’s Mom rents out the shed on their property to Freddy, the doorman from the bar where she works. The move displaces Mike’s lawn mower, which was in the shed, and someone steals it.

Chaz, an eternally optimistic guy who admits to having no liquid assets, hires Mike to do production work assembling bobblehead and Japanese dolls with puckered lips that sing “On Top of Old Smokey.” Chaz owns several dubious businesses, including Chaz Unlimited Limited, Chazy Chaz LLC, Chaz in Charge LLC, and All that Chaz LLC. He wants Mike to be a part of a new import and distribution venture called Razmachaz. Things go well for Mike until the police show up and take Chaz away in handcuffs for some unidentified transgression, possibly related to a previous DUI arrest. As he is led away, Chaz retains his optimism, telling Mike it is just a minor setback and to continue to think big. Despite Chaz’s being basically a charlatan, Mike learns persistence and confidence from him. Chaz re-enters Mike’s life at the end of the novel.

Mike tries his hand at gambling but loses. With no money or dental insurance, Mike lets Freddy pull his aching tooth with a pair of pliers, but Freddy pulls the wrong tooth. He finally gets the nerve to ask Remy out but has to settle for a picnic and a drink at a bar because of lack of money. After the date, they share an “ambiguous” kiss in the parking lot.

Doug Goble, a local real estate tycoon who went to school with Mike, hires Mike to do landscaping work on the properties he is selling. Goble, whose hair is never messed up despite the fact that he drives a convertible, had a sexual encounter with Mike when they both were in the fourth grade, but never acknowledges it. Goble buys Mike beers, gives him a $100 tip, and pays him $23 an hour.

Things are going well for Mike until he meets Piggot, a wealthy homeowner with perfect, thick, white hair near a country club where he is working. Piggot offers Mike $29.90 an hour to leave Goble and work for him. Mike agonizes over whether to take the job; he doesn’t want to be disloyal to Goble, who has been treating him well. Piggot invites him to a party, where Mike meets rich people with thin lips and Piggot’s drunk son, who tells Mike that he himself is a failure because he has never lived up to his father’s expectations.

Mike tells Goble he turned down Piggot’s job offer, and is surprised that Goble is not happy about it. In fact, Goble tells Mike that if he doesn’t take Piggot’s offer, he will fire him because he doesn’t want to continue paying him $23 an hour. As it turns out, Goble didn’t tell Mike that he only needed him to do lawn work on the properties for a short period of time. Furthermore, Goble actually arranged for Piggot to offer Mike a job. He wants Mike to take the job so he can spy on Piggot. He wants to find out if Piggot or any of his neighbors are planning to sell because he wants the listings. In fact, he is planning to sell a nearby home to a Black football player, hoping it will scare the racist Piggot into a fit of white flight.

Mike goes back to Piggot and tells him he will accept his offer. However, Piggot had recently spoken to Goble, who told him that Mike’s job with him was ending. Piggot rescinds his original $29.90-an-hour offer and offers Mike just $14 an hour, as he knows Mike is now desperate for work. Disgusted by the collusion of his wealthy employers, Mike works the job for half a day and quits.

Mike bonds with his librarian friend Andrew. They attend protest events, including an Occupy Walmart picketing. Although both men suffer from self-doubt, they encourage and boost each other’s confidence.

As time passes, Mike turns down a job selling tires that Nick had lined up for him. He also turns down an offer from Goble to do more landscaping work. Finally, his friend and former co-worker, Tino, tells Mike he is starting his own landscaping company. He wants to make Mike a 50-percent partner and offers to make him the face of the company because he is whiter than Tino. Tino explains that clients lowball him because he is Mexican. Mike accepts the offer but will only agree to a 45-percent share because, as he points out, Tino had already done the groundwork and attracted some clients.

Andrew introduces Mike to the concept of to-do lists as a motivating tool. In Andrew’s apartment, they kiss and spend the night together. After, Mike struggles with uncertainty and doubts about his identity. Nevertheless, he comes out to all the people close to him. They all accept his new identity, including his homophobic friend Nick, which surprises Mike.

The final triumphant moment in the novel occurs when Mike takes his family and friends to Disneyland, fulfilling a childhood dream that his absentee father had denied him.