Setting the Lawn on Fire: A Novel

Setting the Lawn on Fire: A Novel

by Mack Friedman


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Setting the Lawn on Fire, the first novel by critically acclaimed writer Mack Friedman, trails its narrator through his obsessions with sex, drugs, art, and poison. Ivan, a young Jewish boy from Milwaukee, embarks on a journey of sexual discovery that leads him from Wisconsin to Alaska, Philadelphia, and Mexico through stints as a fishery worker, artist, and finally a hustler who learns to provide the blank canvas for other people’s dreams. The result is a new kind of coming-of-age story that sees passion from every angle because its protagonist is every kind of lover: the seducer and the seduced, the pornographer and the model, the hunter and the prey, the trick and the john. In the end, Setting the Lawn on Fire is also something rare—a fully realized, contemporary romance that illuminates the power of desire and the rituals of the body, the brain, and the heart that attempt to contain our passions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780299213442
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press
Publication date: 05/25/2007
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Mack Friedman is the author of Strapped for Cash: A History of American Hustler Culture. His essays have been featured at the Center for Exploratory and Perceptual Art and the Leslie-Lohman Gallery, and his performance art has been showcased at the Andy Warhol Museum. His stories have appeared in the anthologies Obsessed, Wonderlands, and Barnstorm. This is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Setting the Lawn on Fire

A Novel
By Mack Friedman

The University of Wisconsin Press

Copyright © 2005 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-299-21340-4

Chapter One


It's the first day of school, third grade. Where are you? Are you there? Do you remember the leaves starting to change, the breeze cooling hips under shorts? Were you looking down at your new shoes? I looked up on my way to the bus, saw a boy.

And that's really my story. A nine-year-old stranger. Saucony sneakers, gold-striped foam soles. Concrete squares, an arching blue dawn, sunlit rooftops. The shadow I wound up in, underneath the U-Frame-It. Teeth as white as sheets. A feeling, as he hugged me, of a dream. Not a dream I had slept through, but a living reverie, a dream that followed me, the way people are haunted by brilliance. Or a physical imprinting, a makers' mark pressed into the quicksand of a sidewalk-Milwaukee WI 1979-before it slowly turns hard and impenetrable.

Green Journal box, green light, WALK in pale letters. I ran to him. He turned his head and grinned.

"Are you going to Fighting Bob LaFollette Elementary?" he asked.

"Yes," I said, and was next to him, looking up at his face, where the sky bored two holes to see through.

"Me too!" he said. "I'm in fourth grade." He threw himself at me. We hugged so hard mybackpack fell off my shoulders.

Cal was my guide. I barely noticed my new school. I couldn't wait for recess, when I'd see him again. He was Cal with a capital C. He lived around the corner. We were friends.

The boulevard where I grew up slid gently down the block, perfect for football. We played with his little brother, Ronnie, who was in second grade. One summer morning I cut across the grass and slammed forehead-first into a concrete lamppost. It knocked me out just as I registered its flat enormity. Cal caressed me back into consciousness, as if willing the goose egg that swelled on my forehead to hatch. He picked a dead dandelion and blew off its head so the spores drifted under my nostrils. Ronnie ran for my dad, who came out with ice. Of this there remains scar tissue, a mass of my cranium shaped like a tennis ball's extrusion into air when it's floating on the surface of a pool.

In the summers we all took tennis and swim lessons. At first I was jealous, but I learned to tolerate Ronnie's tagging along. Once we showered near a man who was shaving his crotch. We were entranced enough to make fun of him walking home. I know I thought about pubic hair on me or on Cal, but the idea seemed so removed from what was there that I quickly got distracted.

I knew what was there by watching him change now and then. When he combed his straight blond hair at the sinks, I'd stay at the lockers and survey his white Hanes for shit stains. One day Ronnie couldn't come, dentist or something. Cal and I walked back alone from the pool, four blocks up Locust from the riverside. It was in July, around our birthdays. He put his arm around me. His hair was slicked back, drying in the sun, like in some Don Henley song. In the space of a pop tune, traffic receded into scenery, Cal's hand on my shoulder. I'd gone through the wardrobe and made it to Narnia. He loved me right then.

That fall, the nightmares started. Alone in a forest, chased by bears, in a spiral of eight-fingered oak leaves and maple pod seeds. This dream recurred through the winter and most of the spring. Then, wandering naked, night after night, onto the stage in the school cafetorium. Standing, staring out. You have to confront your fears.

I got scared my first sleepover at his house and had to go home around 11. Our next try, Cal kissed me in his upper bunk while Ronnie slept below us. It worked. I stayed the night. When they got cable TV he'd call and we'd fall asleep to 3-D horror films on the pullout in the family room. We woke up to lawnmowers, Michael Jackson, blankets over bare chests, his red, mine blue; my arm around him, its sleepy tingle pinned under his weight. His upper lip was dewy and smelled like fresh-cut grass. If they say why, tell them that it's human nature.

Once, in a late-August lightning storm, while my parents tracked the crisscrossing electricity from the back porch, we snuck into their closet and pushed the bras, hanging like curtains, from our faces. We kissed once, fast, sweet, and the breeze from the bedroom window smacked the door shut like thunder.

Last kiss: in his bunk bed, in a blizzard. We'd walked in the street to the bus stop, digging our sticks deep into sidewalk snowbanks, carving three parallel tracks. Boys do things like that in fairy tales so they won't get lost, but it almost never works. We stood in the spindrift for forty-five minutes until we realized the bus wasn't coming. Cars fumed around us, graying the salty street. On the way back to their house, we saw that new snow had already covered our tracks. This being Wisconsin, all of our parents had made it to work. Naturally, Cal, Ronnie, and I were soon running around the bedroom they shared, stark naked, yelling, "We're playing hooky!"

We caught our breath and peeked out the small, shuttered window, pressed against each other's cheeks. The snow was letting up, its violent spirals petering into jagged, gentle flakes, white butterflies fluttering down. When the last one had fallen, Cal sat down on Ronnie's bed, the lower bunk.

"One of us has to be the girl," he said to me. His lips drew back. He reclined on Ronnie's sheets. I sat next to him, facing him, mouth tingling expectantly like when my mother squeezed lemons for lemonade. Ronnie stared, his back against the wall.

"What do you mean?" I asked. Edging so slightly away.

"One of us has to be the girl. Be Jenny. Otherwise, we're just two fags kissing." And then he laughed. It seemed so out of place. He wasn't sarcastic, characteristically. But he couldn't be serious.

"Okay," I agreed. "I'll be Jenny, but we have to switch later." I knew he wouldn't, but so what.

Cal nodded, bent forward, nudged his face back into mine.

What he meant didn't sink in until much later, after we had played the bowling alley/restaurant game with plastic pins and a Nerf ball one last time. It didn't stick until long after we'd framed and clicked each other's dicks, hands shaped squarely into cameras.

What Cal said didn't hit until I was twelve, crammed into the way-back. Mom was driving me, and some of my friends, to a birthday party for a kid named Dmitri.

One boy said, "Mike P. is gonna be there."

"Mike Pee," said another boy, pretending to urinate, "is a fag."

"You boys are too young to know that about yourselves," said my mom.

I'm not, I wanted to say, too young, and didn't. I stared through the parallel defroster wires at the hash marks sluicing endlessly away, turning from clear into blur.

That night Dmitri's dad gave me a facial massage that felt as good as Cal's hand over my shoulder blades.

You don't have to stop, I whispered, there, but he didn't hear. Party boys danced in a circle as Dmitri's new Hall & Oates crested: Because your kiss is what I miss when I turn off the lights.

I guess in time Cal felt embarrassed. He skimmed away like a water bug, swimming butterfly strokes that I couldn't catch up with. At practice I would glide in his contrail, stroke too close, choke in his wake. Water Safety seemed like a perfect excuse to perfect mouth-to-mouth. Instead, we tag-teamed an inflatable doll on the slippery pool deck. I nicknamed her Jenny; but when I kissed her, I pretended I was saving Cal's life.

Still, after swimming, he'd hang from my jungle gym, him and Ronnie peeing in bushes like bonobo monkeys. One blue summer day, when the breeze from the West was sweetly fervid, like corn- fields and cowshit and brewery steam, I squatted in the wood chips and watched them climb our red-white-and-blue aluminum sticks. I threw bark shavings into the grass and imagined them splintered by my father's new gas mower. On the crooked plastic swing next to the clubhouse/outhouse, I felt more certain with every creaking return that when their mom realized I was a fag and a very bad influence she wouldn't let me play with them anymore.

My dad got me a magic-trick box for my twelfth birthday, that July. It was a cheap kit, with weighted dice and invisible rope and cubist trinkets. We mastered this wizardry in two afternoons. The book that came with it, though, gave us some ideas. On its cover was a magician juggling flaming torches in the park. We started with tennis balls, two hours a day. Ronnie could never get the hang of it, so he was our audience. By August, we'd learned how to juggle Cal's plastic bowling pins, even passing one between us. We only dropped them once in awhile, or that's what we thought. We figured we were ready for more. I'm not even sure whose idea it was. We just followed the instructions. I collected three thick branches from the park the morning after a bad storm. Cal found some rags and wound them around the sticks, bundling them at the end with rubber bands. We dipped our kindling through the hole of the kerosene can in the garage, soaked the cloth through. Ronnie brought out a box of long, red-tipped matches from my kitchen and a pail of water. Then we set the lawn on fire. It all happened so fast. The flames were out of control, like Mom's hair. The neighbors called the fire department, but my dad unscrewed the sprinklers and managed to hose it all down.

In the fall when I went into eighth grade, I'd stand over my charred yard at the attic window, watch Cal and Ronnie play catch in their own fenced-off square, and try to make my phone ring. But what magic I'd learned from being Cal's assistant was useless in my hands. He ducked under the curtains in the middle of the show and left me sawed in two.

Our last date happened because Mom forced me to call him and drove us to Dirty Dancing. She was tired of my moping or sensed I was heartbroken. Suspecting it was a big conspiracy to show me a good time, I felt humiliated. I never called him again. I figured Cal's new trip was not a vacation. He'd never come back. Now I know I was right.

All over Wisconsin are kettles and moraines, molded by glaciers. Sometimes you can even find petrified stone.

Preserved in an icefall, life passed right by me. I fell in love with the autistic kid on St. Elsewhere. I thought I was enough for myself. I'd look in the glass day after day to make sure I was still there. My skin cracked from all the showers I took to get warmer. I just felt the same numbing cold all the time. In the resorts on the Upper Peninsula the snow is sometimes so frigid, skiers get stuck on the summits because their skis can't create enough friction to glide them downhill.

What's unbecoming about being stuck is just that: you cannot become. If I didn't know what I was becoming, it was because I didn't think I was. I had a sense of it, maybe, staring at my friends, but my point of view was limited: skin-deep, and they always had clothes on. The only kid I'd strip for was the one the mirror showed. I wasn't sure what was real-myself, or my reflection? There was no way for me to see my face without distortion. The closest I came was closing one eye so I could see my nose, but that was blurry and too close, out of perspective. It reminded me of filmstrips. I convinced myself the image was a counterpart: a flash of pink in my friends' retinas, a flash of pink in mine.

And so I made a friend.

I was thirteen then.

In colored pencil, I sketched friends in my grandfather's house, on the slim, madras couch in the den. Faces upon faces. My old friend Cal was with someone else. The latest face was cool; she wore a jean jacket, no jelly bracelets. She looked like she had staying power.

When my parents were gone, my new friend came to visit. The oval, metal-frilled frame in the downstairs bathroom showed only the top of his head: wavy brown hair, narrow, lively brown eyes. The medicine-cabinet mirror in my bathroom was rectangular but curved on top like the Liberty Bell. I saw every imperfection in the glass: the big nose with a sunburn line across the tip, chin pimple growing like a witch's wart, a kid's dumb veneer. The uncertain, anxious grin.

In the laundry room mirror I focused on my body. I'd stand next to the washer and strip, fixating on my lack of pubic hair, as though that were all that separated me from the world. I couldn't control this any more than my desire. I was repulsed and entranced to see myself as such a child. In my parents' bathroom, between opposing green walls, I reflected a leaf from one mirror onto another and saw my pale ass, undistinguished. I flexed my butt muscles and all the laws changed, like levitation. I kissed the fogging glass I had tilted, leaving my imprint. I fingered the words I love you over my lips in the glass, and then swabbed it all over with my hand.

At this mirror's lower counterpart, I learned I could push my penis back into my body with ease. When it was hot out, and humid, it would stay there, retracted, a negative integer. The veins under my belly button were blue below translucent skin, like the invisible man in science class. When I looked over my shoulder, my ass gleamed like moonlight.

I took long hot showers.

In seventh grade Spanish I would imagine all my classmates-black white mexican hmong japanese american, skinheaded and dyed, fat fit or skinny, big-tittied and flat-frozen at their desks, zippery parachute pants in sloppy piles for me to examine: leather cotton nylon poly fleshy bony skin like mine. It was a crash scene and they were unconscious. I would have just enough time to attend to them all.

That spring, on the class trip to DC, my camera froze friends' asses under cherry blossoms. I liked it when schoolmates wore sweatpants. There was a swimming pool at the hotel. My friend Todd, his bowl-cut and rat-tail a permanent beaver hat, got naked changing into his Speedo. I saw him through the mirror in his hotel room, the eyes in the back of my head. They flickered over Todd's slight body, small penis curving over big balls like a banana split. His pubic hairs were chocolate sprinkles. I looked away, embarrassed for him in the Speedo: no one shows that much skin. Maybe I was the only one who noticed enough to care.

Stranger Danger pep rallies taught me that men could find me appealing. My gym teacher watched me bounce out of hot showers. It wasn't something that got to me, just subtle, unnamable, funny, and awkward. At first, I took in only its barest suggestions. We read Greek myths in social studies, but the legends were censored. This way, I could not identify as Narcissus, Pericles, or Ganymede. I was Icarus, led by my father out of the maze, only to burn to the ground when the sun licked my wings.

That summer, Mom and I went to New York to visit my greataunt Joan. She was eighty-three years old, quick and fierce as a goose, and she called me Shlommy, my dad's boyhood nickname. Once when I was eight, and a flower-thrower at a family wedding, my dad gave me a plastic glass of champagne. I drank it all in one big swig in my grandfather's bathroom, like it was a cup of Tab. Then I put on some lipstick from a travel case that had to be Joan's: it was the brightest, pinkest color around. My mother asked, horrified, if I'd been putting on makeup. "Nadia, darling, he's just been kissed by so many of us," Joanie had covered for me, with a wink and a kiss. Now, at thirteen, I fought the desire to fly away naked down Columbus Avenue.

Like exotic lovers, Trocadero and Charivari opened their rooms to prepubescent afternoons. The slick men in Barneys and the guys straight from GQ at the sidewalk cafes. Later that summer, new wisps consumed me. I spent the family trip to California in front of mirrors in hotel bathrooms, charting each strange brown hair extruding from white skin. My dad ran mousse through my waves, roughshod. My dad's friend fired buckshot with us in his sprawling backyard, piercing warm cans of Old Milwaukee. "It's the best use for your worst beer," Tony told me, a beefy arm around my waist. "Here, hold it with both hands." He designed weapons for a living. I missed every time, but Tony made them explode against a rock barrier. Foam dribbled like tears down the sandy cliff face and into his man-made creek.

My dad's friend's daughter and her friend took me to a dance club in Santa Barbara one summer night. It was muggy and smelled like plants drinking. They had to drag me away from the Frogger arcade when "People Are People" came on. I was in depeche mode but my body moved slowly. I got an erection in the Pacific Ocean in my Ocean Pacific swimsuit. No one noticed. Later, I showed the boy in the mirror. He kept it to himself.


Excerpted from Setting the Lawn on Fire by Mack Friedman Copyright © 2005 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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