Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Lawnboy by Paul Lisicky

by Paul Lisicky

Is it fair to compare one writer to another? Is the comparison ever quite right? Blurbs for Lawnboy compared Paul Lisicky to Michael Cunningham (The Hours, A Home at The End of the World, etc.), and the cover even boasted a blurb from Cunningham himself. While certainly flattering, how does Lawnboy compare?

Non-straight characters? Check.
Coming of age/awakening type plot? Check.
Complicated romance? Checkity-check-check.

But couldn’t one say this about plenty of other books? Francesca Lia Block also had these things, but Wheetzie Bat and Lawnboy and The Hours are three entirely different books. Then again, it’s been a little while since I’ve read Cunningham’s work. Still, there is one clear way that Lisicky and Cunningham reminded me of each other: It took me the first third of the book to really get into it. That’s not to say I spent the first third uninterested; I just questioned how much I would enjoy the whole thing. Lawnboy is divided into three parts, and by Part 2, I became much more engaged in how things turned out.

Evan, seventeen years old and apathetic about school, begins mowing his neighbor William’s lawn. Though they are twenty-four years apart in age, Evan is startled by his attraction to him.

He meant absolutely nothing to me, until he stepped forward, then I started noticing: jaw, eyes, hair, smell, hands, feet, mouth. There was a kind of buzz about him, a field of hissing electricity that jerked with my ions and electrons.

If you want to know how fast the relationship progresses, you should know there’s sex by page ten. There’s no across the yard meandering, no longing glances that go on for pages; these two get straight to business. And in a way, it is business, as William continues to pay Evan thirty dollars each time he mows the lawn.

Eventually, estranged from his family, Evan moves in with William, and the two try to form a household together. William goes to work at one of the Miami news stations while Evan stays home, caring for the two Dobermans, tending to the plants and performing general upkeep. Their relationship moves from steamy to stagnant, and Evan feels like he’s giving more romance than he receives. When William has to work in Key West for a few days, Evan starts to realize that maybe they weren’t meant to be.

Once I stopped resisting my aloneness, I gave myself over to it, relaxing, even cultivating a new privacy.

The novel deals quite a bit with Evan’s relationship to his family, including his brother Peter, and just about every character is fundamentally lonely in some way. They all want to be loved and remembered. Throughout it all, Evan operates with optimistic fatalism — always awaiting doom, but hoping to be proven wrong.

With the story set in early 90s Florida, AIDS is still a somewhat new, ever-present threat. It’s not the main focus, but to ignore it would be ignoring history, and so it influences some portions of the plot. Florida itself is in a period of transition during this time — South Beach is just becoming trendy, moving away from the days when it was mainly populated by old Jewish men and drug dealers. Hurricane Andrew is still fresh in everyone’s minds, and the wreckage of abandoned buildings still haunt the landscape. Like Evan, Florida is torn between the past and an uncertain path ahead.

My only quibble is that events sometimes moved too quickly. While I appreciated the straightforward pace in general, every once in a while I wouldn’t have minded a little dawdling. Also, I couldn’t always relate to the voice of a boy in his late teens, having never been one. I understood from where he came, but when he sounded his age — petulant, selfish, overly worried — I’ll admit I rolled my eyes. Still, that only goes to show his realism. Who hasn’t rolled their eyes at a seventeen-year-old boy?

I enjoyed Lawnboy well enough that I will keep an eye out for Lisicky’s other work. The lingering, awestruck descriptions of physicality, and the unabashed searches for affection were enough to make me want more. It doesn’t matter whether Paul Lisicky writes anything like Michael Cunningham — Let the man stand on his own.


Full disclosure: Graywolf Press sent me this book after I requested it (among two others). I thank them for devoting a marketing write-off to my small blog, and I will continue to be fair regarding my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This review also appeared on Pajiba.com on July 30th, 2010.

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