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We live in an age of fervent, misguided, conspiratorial belief. Fluoridated drinking water is poisonous. Michelle Obama was born a man. There are incriminating references to “pizza” in John Podesta’s e-mails. We might try to buy our way out: with yoga, green tea, reusable grocery bags, or a two-week fast in Bavaria. But regardless, ideology “proliferates … as merchandise,” as Jia Tolentino has written. “We can buy anything that suits us and nothing that we really need.”
“The Yard Boy” is Joy Williams’ answer to 2016, though it was published in The Paris Review’s Winter 1977 issue. It’s a story about a true believer: a self-professed spiritual materialist who does not understand this term to be derisive, a label for those who would seek spirituality through consumerism or ego. He’s a zealot entrapped by platitudes with a New Age aura (“nothing is more obvious than the hidden” or “the moon can shine in one hundred different bowls”). His quest to live “in the Now” unravels his life.
But “The Yard Boy” is not a morality play; its less dogmatic characters—the ones whose lawns the yard boy tends—aren’t better adjusted. The yard boy’s labor is altogether lost on the woman who pays him a fortune to care for her flowers and trees (“she looks up at the mangos, hanging. Uuuuuh, she thinks”). Another client is “into heroin and intangible property,” and a third, an illustrator of cowboys, is violently upset that his publishers “have told him that they are not interested in cowboys” because “the new minority in America today is the white female.”
Nobody escapes Williams’s droll characterization—zealots are duped and everyone else is complacent or disconnected. This would be cynical except for the strange mysticism of the ending. The answer, she elliptically suggests, might be plants. You just have to read it to understand.
The yard boy was a spiritual materialist. He lived in the Now. He was free from the karmic chain. Being enlightened wasn’t easy. It was very hard work. It was manual labor actually.
The enlightened being is free. He feels the sorrows and sadness of those around him but does not necessarily feel his own. The yard boy felt that he had been enlightened for about two months, at the most.