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 Caulfield may have some archetypical reference points for youth, so much of young peoples’ angst is going to centre around the things that they can relate to as part of their everyday culture, that the era of a story is almost as important as the 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 to those who most find completely unacceptable.
That’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-spirited, the epitome of what people dreamed of being in the 1960s, and Coupland’s book spoke the language of those who were stuck in free fall, on the merry–go–round of going nowhere fast, with service industry jobs in the early days of the blank 1980s.
Those looking for the anti-hero of the “nought” generation, those coming of age in the zero years of the 21st century, could do much worse than 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 by 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; the wheels barely ever stop spinning long enough for you to catch a breath. First thing you have to know about When is that When 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. “Thinfinger” came from his step dad, who formally adopted him when he was ten.
It was also his step dad who threw him out of the house 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 skateboarder, who can bunny hop his mountain bike over curbs, rocks and other immovable objects, and he may be the lead screamer in a local punk outfit, but he has an un-cool streak a mile wide.
He passes out at the sight of blood and doesn’t cope well with pain. Since he hangs 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: working at 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 and can be stuffed down drunk and stoned college students and the service people who serve them.
When has a work ethic, whether he’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 Post-It 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 to clean 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 that 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 rattlesnakes on your skateboard, 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 who 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, 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 another day you have to get through.