The Lawnmower Man by Stephen King, 1975
The magic trick:
Establishing a hyper-normal world and then exploding it with something hyper-weird
This is one of those stories that just has you going, “Oh come on. Really?” about halfway through. It’s just all so bizarre. But you know what? Looking back at the story now, it holds up. It actually has some interesting things to say.
The key is the establishing of a very normal world in the beginning. It is a world many readers will recognize – boring and bored suburbia. King then inserts the lawnmower man, a truly warped creation. The incongruity between character and setting is what makes the story so twisted, so gross and I guess so scary (if you’re 12 years old).
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that this is a fine piece of literature, but I did come away with a few quote-unquote literary thoughts. The story absolutely punishes its protagonist, the slovenly suburban dad. That’s something, right? The man is too lazy to mow his own lawn. The man who worries first about how things appear to his neighbors. He does not meet the kindest end. The means by which the story exacts that punishment are kind of silly. The lawnmower man is a pretty absurd character. But the end result is fairly George Saunders-esque. And that’s quite a trick on King’s part.
And this year, Harold just kept putting off the necessary hiring. When he finally got around to calling last year’s boy, his mother told him Frank had gone to the state university. Harold shook his head in wonder and went to the refrigerator to get a beer. Time certainly flew, didn’t it? My God, yes.
He put off hiring a new boy as first May and then June slipped past him and the Red Sox continued to wallow in fourth place. He sat on the back porch on the weekends and watched glumly as a never ending progression of young boys he had never seen before popped out to mutter a quick hello before taking his buxom daughter off to the local passion pit. And the grass thrived and grew in a marvellous way. It was a good summer for grass; three days of shine followed by one of gentle rain, almost like clockwork.
By mid-July, the lawn looked more like a meadow than a suburbanite’s backyard, and Jack Castonmeyer had begun to make all sorts of extremely unfunny jokes, most of which concerned the price of hay and alfalfa. And Don Smith’s four-year-old daughter Jenny had taken to hiding in it when there was oatmeal for breakfast or spinach for supper.