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Literature: Small World, Big Talent

by Paul Wilner

Jonathan Evison’s new novel explores the American dream — and nightmare.

Jonathan Evison | Photo courtesy of Keith Brofsky.

Jonathan Evison is a force of nature. The Santa Clara–born writer (and former punk rocker) seamlessly navigates different genres. The black humor of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (adapted into a 2016 film starring Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez) was followed by 2019’s Lawn Boy — the tale of Mike Muñoz, a mixed-race kid who likes to turn turf into topiary — which got caught up in the culture wars of the past few years. He’s also taken on epic themes in ambitious novels of the American West like West of Here (2011) and Legends of the North Cascades (2021).

Small World
“A bighearted, widescreen American tale,” says Kirkus Reviews of Evison’s seventh novel, published in January.

His new book, Small World, encompasses multiple generations dealing with everything from the building of the transcontinental railroad to an inner-city kid’s ride to a basketball tournament on a runaway train. Of the overarching symbol, Evison says the railroad “shrank the world overnight. All of a sudden, you could go to church in Chicago and six days later be eating lunch in San Francisco.”

He doesn’t let prepping get in the way of fictional freedom, though. “One of the things I learned from West of Here — where I did MFA-level research, reading like 30 books about the period — is that I didn’t want the research to get in the way of the story. Instead of the old trope of history being written by the winners, I look at it as a prismatic lens. Everybody’s individual history is tied up into a larger story.”

The New York Times review called Muñoz “a Holden Caulfield for a new millennium,” a description Evison demurs from, saying that J.D. Salinger’s famed prep school dropout was “suffering from affluenza.” For Evison, it’s been a long, sometimes checkered, road. His family moved to Washington state when he was 8, after his father took a job at the Bangor submarine base. Evison later returned to East Palo Alto, where he “dropped out of three community colleges — San Mateo, De Anza, Foothill — I even took some classes at San Francisco State.” The lack of a degree, however, hasn’t hurt his career one bit — Small World marks his seventh novel.

“Instead of the old trope of history being written by the winners, I look at it as a prismatic lens. Everybody’s individual history is tied up into a larger story.” — Jonathan Evison

How does the father of three juggle his responsibilities? “The short answer is, I get away from my family two days a week,” allows Evison, who has long been based back in Washington. “We have a house on Bainbridge and another place on the Olympic Peninsula. Every week, I go out there by myself and work 12 to 16 hours a day.”

In focusing on his craft, Evison seems unperturbed by the Lawn Boy controversy (over a brief description of a gay encounter his protagonist has with another schoolboy). Nevertheless, he’s tried to put it in the rearview. “I’m just ignoring it now,” he says. “I’ve had an outpouring of support from librarians and students; they literally bought every copy. For once, I’m rooting for e-books.”

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