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Book Review: Ovenman Jeff Parker

From J. D. Salinger's Catcher In The Rye on down, the modern novel has been replete with coming of age stories about dysfunctional males. Some of them have been tedious in their, oh so serious, examination of normal behaviour that most people grow out of, but a minority have managed to capture the flavour and feeling of the times they are set in.

While some see Salinger's work as the litmus test for books of this genre, and it's true it was probably the first work of fiction that showed an adolescent pimples and all, it's also very period specific. While the character of Holden Caufield may have some archetypical reference points for youth, so much of a young person's angst is going to centred around the things that they can relate to as part of their everyday culture that era is almost as important as character.

Not fitting in is the biggest fear for the majority of people at that stage in their lives. Taking the first steps in building an identity that is more than son, daughter, sister, or brother is a very scary business and the most important thing needed is reassurance that who you are is acceptable, even if it's with those most find completely unacceptable.

It's what made books like Richard Farina's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me and Douglas Coupland's Generation X so perfect for their respective eras. Farina's Gnossos was the ultimate in cool and free spirit – the epitome of what people dreamed of being in the sixties and Coupland's book spoke the language of those were stuck in the free fall, merry –go – round of going nowhere fast, with service industry jobs in the early days of the blank 1980's.
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For those looking for the anti-hero of the "nought" generation, those coming of age in the zero years of the 21st century, they could do no worse then gravitate towards When Thinfingers, the protagonist of Jeff Parker's first novel Ovenman. Published by Tin House Books and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada and Publishers Group West in the States it explodes off the page like a motorized board coming off the high wall.

This is not a ride for the faint of heart as the wheels barely ever stop spinning long enough for you to catch a breath. First thing you have to know about When is it and Thinfinger are his real names. His mom was sixteen when she gave birth to him and she was in labour so long that all she could say near the end was, when. She couldn't think of anything else to call him so it stuck. The Thinfinger came from his step dad, who formally adopted him when he was ten.

It was also his step dad that threw him out of home the day he showed up with both arms covered in tattoos from shoulder to wrist. It didn't matter that the guy doing the tattoos had exercised creative license while When was passed out. When may be a bad-ass skate boarder, who can bunny hop his mountain bike over curbs, rocks and other immovable objects, and be the lead screamer in a local punk outfit, but he has this un-cool streak a mile wide.

He passes out at the sight of blood and doesn't cope well with pain. Hanging with people who think nothing of branding themselves with red hot butter knives or covering themselves with multiple piercings, that makes him a little bit more of a loser than they are.

So it's a good thing that our boy When has another way of finding life satisfaction, his jobs for places on the lower end of the food service industry. Now we're not talking about the real low end, working for the franchises, but the small independents who specialize in mass production of ribs, pizza, and whatever else is hot or deep fried that can be stuffed down drunk and stoned college students and the service people that serve them.

When has work ethic, whether it's prepping salads, cleaning the grease pit, or holy of holies setting the pizza oven up for optimum loading and cooking of all sizes. Becoming the Ovenman at the coolest pizza joint in town makes him feel like things are coming together for him. So what if his live in girlfriend has nightmares about him murdering her, and sings in a top forty cover band? What does it matter that when his mountain bike gets stolen his best friend makes him buy it back from him? Does it really matter that he has to stick postit notes to his body so he can remember what happened the night before?

As Ovenman he gets to mop the floor last thing at night, and there's nothing he's prouder of than his ability to mop a floor spotless. He's even figured out how far he can push things when it comes to his theory of restaurant economics; how much is staff entitled to steal from ownership as a ratio of how much they are paid versus how much the establishment makes.

But, it all goes to shit when he's promoted to manager. Not that he can't do the job, and not that people aren't willing to work for him – but he's not allowed to do anything anymore but float and keep the customers satisfied. No more lining up pizzas in the oven, no more perfect way of cleaning out the grease tank, and worst of all no more final mop at the end of the night with the place to himself. Something's got to give and when it does, it's pretty spectacular.

Jeff Parker's Ovenman is about the kids you see covered with tattoos and piercings whose lives revolve around the scene and nothing else. The future isn't going to be any different from today, just more of the same jumping from dead end job to dead end job. Big dreams, like jumping a pit of rattle snakes on your skate board, come to naught because as dreams go they don't have much to do with anyone's version of reality.

Ovenman is funny, sad, and intelligent in all the right ways, with characters that are sometimes too real to be comfortable. In other words, they have a nasty way of making you think, or at least me think, there but for the grace of God go I. These aren't stupid kids, well not all of them anyway. They're just the ones who never had a chance from the moment of birth because they were born into a world that really didn't give a shit for what happened to them.

For every politician who makes a speech about the youth being our future and the need to invest in them, there are twenty When Thinfingers who are just trying to figure out the present. The future isn't a concept these kids think about except in terms of it being another day you have to get through.

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