Ovenman: By Jeff Parker, 242 pgs. By Sean Carswell

Aug 31, 2008

Ovenman tells the story of When Thinfinger, somewhat of a skater and somewhat of a punk rocker, who finds his real identity as a cook in a pizza joint. An ovenman. He drinks too much and has doomed relationships—with women, with his friends, with his employers—and generally drifts along the fringes of society in Gainesville, Florida during the early nineties. His self-destructive tendencies gain momentum through the novel and lead him into a world of trouble. To say more about the plot would give away too much. Rest assured, though, that while When is aimless, the novel is not. It is tightly plotted. Parker does a good job of dropping enough hints and leaving enough loose threads that you’ll want to read through the end to see everything tied up.

The book itself has an introduction by Sam Lipsyte and a back cover blurb by Padgett Powell. These two authors provide a good starting point for understanding the book, because Ovenman is nestled comfortably between Lipsyte’s Homeland and Powell’s A Woman Named Drown. Like A Woman Named Drown, Ovenman defies Florida stereotypes and takes the reader on a tour through the forgotten blue collar Florida that I would say is the real Florida—a place where punk rockers go fishing and the swamps linger dangerously close, where the heat and humidity breed a weird kind of mold on the brain that doesn’t cause the Carl Hiaasen-style insanity, but it does make people just a little bit off. Since I grew up and lived a lot of my life in this Florida, I appreciate how both Parker and Powell can write about it so authentically. Like Lipsyte’s Homeland, Ovenman shows the nineties-style rejection of white, middle-class American values through characters who are intelligent enough to know that they want more out of life, but aren’t ambitious enough to look beyond booze and weed for a new path. Both novels drip with an irreverence that most Razorcake readers will be able to relate to.

My only criticism of the novel, though, has to do with the protagonist. Though When is very real-to-life, exactly the kind of guy I’ve known in my life, he’s also the kind of guy I try to avoid. It’s not because his life’s ambitions don’t stretch beyond being an ovenman. I can respect that. What bugs me about When is that he constantly tests the loyalty and friendship of those around him by doing awful things to them, then hoping they forgive him, even though he shows no remorse. Every single character who befriends, dates, or helps out When ends up getting screwed over by him. (In this way, he’s less self-destructive and more destructive to those around him.) And unlike Homeland’s Lewis Miner (aka Teabag), who is able to mold his self-deprecation into a dark humor that’s hilarious, When’s self-deprecation is more pitiful than charming. Unlike Powell’s unnamed protagonist in A Woman Named Drown, whose rejection of middle-class American values is not a rejection of people—the protagonist is a big-hearted and occasionally selfless guy—When is selfish throughout. Nothing in the end of the novel left me with any hope that this would change. While this is very realistic, it also makes the novel very easy to put down.

Overall, though, Ovenman is well-crafted, well-written novel. It’s a solid release for the upstart Tin House Books. The quality of Ovenman and the quality of the stories that they publish in Tin House magazine has me excited about further releases by this press. –Sean Carswell (Tin House Books, 2601 NW Thurman St., Portland, OR97210)


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