The pleasures of pizza
by Keith Taylor
It isn't difficult to remember the slackers from the early 1990s, with their skateboards, their own language, their tattoos, their piercings, and their tough rock. They hung around towns like this, where they could easily find the kinds of support jobs that a college town provides, particularly in the lower end of the food service sector. The jobs were easy enough to do if your mind was elsewhere or especially fuzzy from the night or afternoon before. You didn't care if you were fired anyway, because you knew there was another minimum-wage job waiting somewhere not far away.
Jeff Parker, who spent a few years here recently when he taught at EMU, has written a funny first novel about these characters. His Ovenman is essentially a picaresque novel that follows the beautifully named When Thinfinger into and out of his career at the Piecemeal Pizza by the Slice shop in a college town in central Florida sometime during the days of the first Gulf War. I give that place and time only as reference; When and his friends don't really pay much attention to mainstream culture. In fact, it is represented only by the occasional appearance of the police or by the need for money to buy some beer or pay the rent.
Parker's hero has his pleasures, but they're not quite what you would expect. He enjoys riding his skateboard or doing wheelies on his bike more than he enjoys having sex with his paranoid girlfriend or even singing with his punk band, Wormdevil. He gets messed up nightly, but he never remembers it and has to write Post-it notes that he sticks to his body to remind himself of something he may have done the previous evening. He pilfers from his employers because that is part of his life. "Maybe there are some limits to be tested," he says to his best friend. "In a way, it's like Robin Hood." But that's far too
grandiose for the situation, and When knows it.
His main problem is that he's found a job he likes: ovenman at the pizza place. "All I can think about is the simple job of mopping floors, of Ajaxing the sinks, of scraping burnt-to-a-crisp ronis [aka pepperoni] off the back of the oven brick." This creates a dilemma. He is so good that he finds himself promoted to night manager, where he is actually responsible for things.
Where he actually has to fire people. Where he has the combination to the safe.
Jeff Parker has done a wonderful job re-creating this world, with all its unique language, only some of which I pretend to understand, and its very own distinct code of conduct. And, perhaps best of all, he has done a great job making us care about When Thinfinger and his particular choices. At the end of the book, we are almost ready to celebrate with the Ovenman, even though we have to get up and go to work tomorrow.
Jeff Parker reads from Ovenman at the Neutral Zone on Monday, October 8.
[Review published October 2007]