OVENMAN by Jeff Parker
A review of

Ovenman

by Jeff Parker

Central question: Can a guy find poetry in a pizza oven?
Format: 264 pp., paperback; Size: 5" x 8 ½"; Price: $14.00; Publisher: Tin House Books; Editor: Lee Montgomery; Print run: 4,000; Interior design: Laura Shaw Design Inc.; Interior artwork: William Powhida; Author’s favorite fast food (given variety of fillings and containers): Taco Bell; Beat of novel’s narrative engine: mostly Slayer; Injuries sustained while researching novel: hippers and skinned knees; Representative sentence: “I thought if I put everything together like it should be put together things would fall into place, as things sometimes do.”

It’s difficult to comment on a certain genre of first-person slacker-in-a-subculture fiction without sounding like a square. How to throw around terms like sketchy, aggro, and mini-ollie without resorting to airborne bunny ears to emphasize one’s awkward outsider status? More important, how to entirely trust When Thinfinger—proud pizza ovenman, skateboard outlaw, counterculture fiend, and general fuckup—as your peripatetic guide? Fortunately the tats, piercings, and late-night wig-outs of Jeff Parker’s small-town Florida 1990s skate-punk world say less about insider trends than they do about a particular brand of American disaffection and despair.

Ovenman opens with our man Thinfinger waking up after a bender, covered in yellow Post-its. “You dont no much,” the first note he spies proclaims. What Thinfinger does know is that he’s been turfed from his job at Ken’s Barbie-Q because of his particular sense of economic justice: “They pay me jack and so I take my own.” He also knows he’s missing one of his “vehicles,” “the Haro with the kinky triangular frame” and that his girlfriend, Marigold, is asleep on the couch atop a cache of knives, convinced by her dreams that he will one day murder her.

Although it’s not always easy to sympathize with Thinfinger—he can be a real dick to his so-called friends and often exhibits an irritating sense of entitlement—to his credit, he never resorts to “poor me” whinging, even though the shrapnel of his past (appearing as casual trailer-park references and letters from Biodad) might warrant some articulation of grievance. The Post-its Thinfinger continues to stick on his body as morning-after reminders remain a series of strangely telegraphed notes-to-self that often show surprising insight but never add up to catharsis or completion.

The story instead follows its own series of switchbacks and cul-de-sacs, refusing—rightfully so—to subscribe to any symmetrical narrative shape. It is Thinfinger’s harrowing, funny, ditzily disenfranchised voice and sense of his surroundings rather than the engine of plot that drive this fictional machine. Even when he scores a new pizza job, his sense of satisfaction is quickly curtailed by his promotion to manager and his unwitting (read: drunken) participation in a crime against the creepy gangster owner. Any clues he (or the reader) might hope to glean from his own psyche are authentically cryptic. He perceives his memories as “video stills; I can’t see forward or backward from any one particular moment.” This ahistorical unease is echoed in the fractured footage of the war—Operation Desert Storm—that plays on CNN in the background like a video game controlled by someone, or something, both remote and familiar. Accordingly, the malaise these characters display is mostly naïve and diffuse; theirs is not a pointed rage against the machine.

It’s telling that the most lyrical moments in the book come not through Thinfinger’s interactions with other characters but while he’s finding a sense of purpose or uncomplicated joy in a menial task or difficult skateboarding trick. Ovenman’s considerable charm and clout lie in this combination of the specific absurdities of Thinfinger’s day-to-day and his often thwarted search for meaning. As front man for his sporadically popular band Wormdevil, Thinfinger longs to write and sing (or scream) the ultimate lyrics. When he waxes eloquent about mopping a floor or describes the high that comes in “those pauses in between moments of high velocity” we see him for the existential poet he yearns to become.

—Heather Birrell

Heather Birrell is the author of the short-story collection I know you are but what am I? (Coach House Books). Her story “BriannaSusannaAlana” was recently awarded the Writers’ Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. She lives in Toronto.

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