Table of Contents
Praise for Jeff Parker's novel
“Some books are funny, some beautifully written, and some capture an era, Jeff Parker's novel
manages to do all three with ease...this is one of my favorite novels of the year.”
“One of the most raucous and fun books I've read in ages...Ovenman
is a frenetic blast of pleasure: a depiction of America at its skankiest, populated with unlikely heroes and told with a reckless glee that commands serious attention.”
The Portland Mercury
“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.”
reads like a high caliber graphic novel, minus the graphics. Cluttered, uncomfortable, compulsively crafted, unashamed of occasional farce or relentless surreal quirky distortion, this is writing you might imagine coming out of the brain of Julie Doucet, if she were a guy who lived in Florida.”
“Jeff Parker's hilarious, oddly touching debut novelOvenman
deftly captures the underground-punk â90s. Thinfinger's adventures in the culinary underground are more comical and way more punk than anything in Anthony Bourdain'sKitchen Confidential
âMichael Alan Goldberg,
“A keen little novel with a bruised pair of knuckles and an infectiously wry, smartass tone you'll want to ride all the way.”
Detroit Metro Times
“A brilliant addition to the growing genre of serious slacker
literature. Parker's When Thinfinger is a direct descendant of
Ignatius J. Reilly, Frank Portman's King Dork, Arthur Nersesian's
F*ckup, and Sam Lipsyte's Teabagâ¦the most entertaining book
I read in 2007.”
“â¦at once bleak and hopeful, weird and hilarious and as surprisingly insightful as its hapless main character.”
“Parker's hilarious debutâ¦is full of surprises, dark humor and a cast of nutty eccentrics vast enough to staff a vulgar circus.”
for Mom and Bruce
WHEN I FIRST ARRIVED HERE, I HAD A SIMPLE request of our liaison, a handsome, tall woman with steel-blue eyes and a pancake face. I wasn't yet confident in my Russian and needed a haircut. I asked her, in English, “Do you know, Tanya, where I can get a barber? I heard they go for about thirty rubles here.”
She looked at me with a rather sharp glance and said, “Thirty rubles is one dollar.”
“About what my last one was worth,” I said, mussing up my hair.
“That's not for me to judge,” she said. “The best thing to do is wait at the bus stops. They'll come up to you.”
“Come up to me?” I said.
“Eventually,” she said.
“That's how people go about it?”
“I think so,” she said, then clip-clopped away.
I spent the better part of a week hanging out at the bus stops trying to look like I wanted a haircut. The only people who ever approached me were thin-lipped prostitutes.
Tanya avoided me after that. The whole cohort avoided me. At first I thought they were just an unsociable bunch, but sometimes, walking home at night, I'd see them all at the beer garden near my flat, laughing and having a good time. I'd pull up a chair and they'd suddenly evacuate. Later on, I convinced this Spanish guy who considered himself a Defender of Women to tell me why everyone hated me, and he said word got around that I had showed up the first day and asked the program liaison where I could find a whore. He added that I was what was wrong with Americans and didn't I have a sister andâpoking me in the chest with his fingerâhow would I feel if his Spanish ass came over to America expressly to fuck her?
I couldn't figure out what he was talking about, but he looked like he was going to hit me. I left.
I gave it some thought, and the only explanation was that she'd mistaken the English word
for the Russian word
âa funny thing because I had a history with the word
. I had written a prize-winning essay for my upper-level Russian Composition class in which I'd identified a flaw in an acclaimed Babel translation. Babel had a situation in which a simple young peasant girl, referred to as a
, strolls into a bar drawing all the men's attention. The word
has three meanings:
plumpish old woman
simple young peasant girl
, and, in slang,
. The translator had rendered it as an old haggard babushka, which didn't make any sense. Why would the men find their attention inexplicably drawn to her, except for her hideousness, which wasn't the point at all? I found
the original, identified the problem, and composed the essay, winning the prize.
is not a common English word and our liaison's English was about as good as my Russian, she could only hear a Russian approximate. False cognate. This was the only explanation. It works the other way too. When Russians, in the course of normal conversation, describe a lecture as exciting and inspirational the Russian word for which is
, I hear only
. At the kiosks late at night, young men ask for
and I'm imagining cured pears when it's the Russian word for
; when I hear
on the lips of a young woman strolling through the garden with her lover my immediate mind thinks
when it somehow means
For a couple days, I tried to set the record straight. I spoke to Tanya about it. “Why do you think I was mussing my hair while I asked you? What do
have to do with hair?” She clearly didn't believe me. I spoke to others in the cohort as well. “Like from my essay?” I said, “The one that won the prize? Imagine the irony!”
No one believed me.
So I was there with a group and by myself at the same time.
It turned out to be the best thing going for me.
While the others dance a vodka-tainted Merengue at a club called Havana Nights, I wash my socks in a bathroom designed so that you have to straddle the toilet to take a shower.
While the others are in classes, I check out the obscure museums, see Rasputin's actual penis and Peter the Great's
collection of deformed babies, which float in jars like smooth balls of fresh mozzarella. I live the real Russian life: isolated, feet wet, maligned.
And on weekends they check the city of fountains or the Tsar's Summer Palace or sun themselves bare- and flabbyassed on the rocky beach at the Peter and Paul Fortress. I take the bus to the provinces.
The Novgorod bus is late so I sit at the beer garden in the courtyard of my building and read the newspaper. Lena is sitting there with a friend, dark-skinned, maybe Tajek or Azerbajani. Lena hates me too. She hates me because I pee behind her office, a wooden shed with a keg inside it. My bladder is worthless and five minutes after a beer, I have to go. All the Russian guys go back there and so I do too.
Lena doesn't like this, but the only option is to take the eight flights of stairs to my apartment and stand in the shower to pee.
Lena, who doesn't think much of my Russian, says to her friend, “Take this goat, Choika. He doesn't speak a word of Russian, and he pees behind this box every day.”
I buy a bottle of beer and some dried squid from her.
“You're very beautiful,” I say in my admittedly heavily-accented Russian. “Three words in Russian. Oh, look at thatâseven, eleven.” She spits over her shoulder.
very beautiful, but her friend even more so. I watch them over the top edge of the newspaper and when they look, drop my eyes to some paragraph:
Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky, Putin's senior advisor on Chechnya, suggests that Islamic extremists co-opt the Black Widows against their will to
become suicide bombers. “Chechens are turning these young girls into zombies using psychotropic drugs,” Mr. Yastrzhembsky said. “I have heard that they rape them and record the rapes on video. After that, such Chechen girls have no chance at all of resuming a normal life in Chechnya. They have only one option: to blow themselves up with a bomb full of nails and ball bearings.”
Choika stands up. She is wearing a half-shirt and there's a square Band-Aid displayed prominently on her hip. It looks like a nicotine patch, but the guide at the Erotica Museum who showed me Rasputin's penis said that they're the new fashion in birth control.
Choika and Lena hug each other and cry. Then Choika scurries across the street to where the bus has pulled into the station. I chug the rest of my beer and run after her.
The driver stands outside the bus smoking and collecting tickets. “Nice shoes,” he says to me. He's in New Balance sneakers identical to mine. It's obvious mine are authentic and his are the imitations you buy in the market. Already the threads along the tongue are pulled and loose. The rubber sole is separating. USA is embroidered on both our heels. “How much?” he says.
“They're my only shoes.”
“It's okay. Not a problem.”
Ahead of me in line, two babushkas lecture Choika on the length of her skirt. She tells them it's the fashion. They say something about she won't be welcome in Novgorod like that. She says in her opinion she'll be very welcome.
I watch her shoes, white strappy things with heels like icepicks, and wonder why it is I think the word
. It comes easier than other words. I wonder when I'll think
. I want to think
I grab the last seat across from Choika and the two babushkas, next to two passed-out soldiers. I smile at Choika. She clutches her bag and looks out the window.
The driver stands on the steps at the front of the bus and shouts, “Attention, attention. I am very sorry to report that the bathroom on this bus is out of order today. In light of this unfortunate development we will be stopping once or twice whenever the possibility for a bathroom opportunity presents itself.”