Mack Friedman's exquisitely written Setting the Lawn on Fire is essentially a gay coming-of-age tale in which the young protagonist, Ivan, seeks to break out of his middle-class Jewish roots. When Ivan's archaeologist mother suddenly dies and his father leaves to pursue his scientific research overseas, the boy is largely left to his own devices.
It is 1985, and Ivan's friendship with Jeremy shapes much of his adolescence and his bourgeoning attraction toward men. He even admits that he didn't know what he was becoming: "I had a sense of it but my point of view was limited: it was skin-deep and the boys always had clothes on."
An experience with his gymnastics teacher forever alter his views on sex, but it is the erotic images of boys in medical textbooks that awakens Ivan to the first thralls of self-pleasure as he becomes obsessed with these distilled images. Their influence over Ivan is undeniably powerful, his fascination with them largely affecting his ability to relate to men later in his journey.
In his early twenties, Ivan travels to the island of Ketchikan off the west coast of British Columbia to work as a day laborer. Here he meets a bunch of other like-minded drifter guys. Although he keeps his sexual orientation to himself, he soon develops a crush
on Sean, a fellow worker.
In Sean, Ivan spies a kindred spirit, but he is unable to form any real connection with
him – perhaps because he's just too obsessed with an ideal. Upon returning home, he tries to reconnect with his mother's memory through her scrapbooks and her possessions, searching for the strange boy of his youth who has slipped away
Harsh lessons are learned in Philadelphia where Ivan becomes a hustler with an escort agency and ends up tricking with the City's mayor. These erotic encounters are no longer sexually rewarding for Ivan as he desperately tries to retrieve his boyish innocence: "any boy will really do, as long as he resembles how I used to look and how I used to feel."
Setting the Lawn on Fire is a provocative and challenging study of the cyclical nature of desire and the sexual yearning of youth as Friedman draws as into the hustler culture. Ivan journeys through a world of frantic sex from adolescence to early adulthood, the unusual sense of urgency always present.
For Ivan, his journey ends in Mexico, where he remembers the time he spent with his beloved mother and where "moments lay piled on top of each other like cards, as soon as you look twice the deck's already reshuffled."
Forced to cover the breadth of emotions - loneliness, despair, acceptance, passion and possibly even redemption - Ivan doesn't find any easy answers to the quandary of unchecked desire, but at least he has tried to make sense of his tumultuous past while also facing the possibility
of an uncertain and tentative future.