The antihero of Jeff Parker’s first novel, Ovenman (Tin House, 250 pages, $14), When strives for mediocrity in every aspect of his sunny Florida skater-punk life. He (sort of) wants to do right by his live-in girlfriend, Marigold, but how can he love a chick who sings crappy Top 40 tunes and dreams that her boyfriend murders her with Q-tips to the brain? He tries to support the entrepreneurial goals of his best friend, Blaise (lobby the city for skatepark, fill it with rattlesnakes, invite press, skate the hissing bowl and be immortalized forever in Thrasher mag), but bong hits and getting girls come first. And then there’s the whole “bio-dad” situation. Who can aim for greatness when the man who spawned you finally shows up, spinning dubious tales about his life?
Yet there is a thing or two that When takes pride in: the glow of his reflection in the expertly polished floor of Piecemeal Pizza, the perfectly proportioned slice of each skillfully topped pie. When’s one true calling is as Ovenman, but his self-identity begins to unravel as he’s thrust into the dreaded role of manager. As much as he encourages employee toke breaks and company-”sponsored” keg parties, he still becomes the Bossman he’s always hated. And the moment When wakes up in his apartment after yet another binge-induced blackout with the phone ringing, a Post-it warning “DONT PICK UP ” and a pizza box filled with stolen dough (not the pie kind), things get a lot more complicated.
Equal parts sleazy and frenetic, Parker’s debut is a chortle-out-loud story about the sweaty, battle-scarred struggle between creating self-monuments and throwing hand grenades. Ovenman at times saunters along like a muggy night on the Gulf Coast, as Parker is content to let his characters’ lives of laziness smolder in self-destruction and speak of a deeper apathy. At other times, Parker’s group of quirky deadbeats whip along, like When’s motorized skateboard, from scene to frenzied scene in a funny, frantic search for something—anything—to prove that the Kids Are All Right. In the end, Parker seems to imply that “all right” might be the best anyone can do. When isn’t an entirely likable character, but something about his earnest desire to fit in yet stand out makes you want him to succeed. You just can’t imagine what he could possibly succeed at .
Part of Tin House’s New Voice Series, Jeff Parker reads from Ovenman on Thursday, Aug. 30, at Mississippi Pizza Pub, 3552 N Mississippi Ave., 288-3231. 6 pm. Free, with free pizza and beer.