Most of the characters in Jeff Parker’s The Taste of Penny are broken, about-to-be broken or are in-the-process-of breaking. Most of them are men, all of them grappling with their own ineptitude. In “Our Cause” a toungeless ski resort worker flees to the prairies of Wyoming into the arms of eco-activism after his girlfriend is wooed by burly bearded townie. In “False Cognate” an American struggles with the language barrier in Russia, accidentally asking women where he can find a whore when all he’s actually asking for is a barber. “Two Hours and Fifty Three Minutes” is an email conversation between a database technician the women he thinks he impregnated in the past only to learn that both women lied to him about his sperm’s potential. The ineptitude reaches a critical mass with The James Stories toward the end of the book. A triptych on uselessness, the stories follow the misadventures of a fuck-up as girlfriends leave and replace him, shamelessly cheat on him right under his nose, and his attempts to pick up the pieces in the aftermath.
Parker’s broken men are lovable goofballs on the surface, but a little dig a little and you’ll find a streak of sadness running deep and wide within in them. Parker struggles with the questions of masculinity that men face in the early 21st century: What does it mean to be a man? What is masculinity? Is it a birthright or is it something to be cultivated? Is it something that must be grown (or beaten) into? The conclusions are unclear, though one thing is certain: the characters are undeniably human.
The voices of the characters are the gems of these stories. Dripping with the residue of childhoods spent smoking weed and skateboarding, these characters engage in incredibly satisfying moments of push-pull dialogue. In the titular story, Sam and Jeremy, two men running a hauling company, are on the phone with a rival hauling company they recently sabotaged:
“What are they saying?” Jeremy said.
“They say we got a problem,” Sam said.
“Talking to your pussy, dick?” one of the two men said. Sam couldn’t tell them apart anymore.
“They ask if I’m talking to my pussy.” Sam said.
“Tell them your pussy takes umbrage at their comment,” Jeremy said.
“Takes what?” Sam said.
“You guys need to watch your backs, this ain’t cool. We let you run your little show around here long enough. Now there may be some action.’
“An equal and opposite reaction?” Sam said in the voice of a black man imitating a white man.
“Um-bridge,” Jeremy said
“Payback action,” the two men said.
“My pussy takes umbrage at your comment,” Sam said.
“Umbrage to your comment,” one of them said and hung up.
For the characters in The Taste of Penny, the stakes are simultaneously low and high. Of course it doesn’t really matter who wins in a game of Jenga cause you can always start another game, it doesn’t really matter if your girlfriend leaves you cause you can always move on, it doesn’t matter if the girl in the apartment below you can hear you masturbating to internet porn because you can always blame it on the guy living above you. The stakes are high in a cosmic, historical and existential sense, as in, why do these men keep finding themselves in these positions of embarrassment, of impotence and shame? The questions remain unresolved. But these are questions that take a lot longer to resolve than the short time Parker gives us to spend with these endearing jokers. But the possibility looms that maybe what we are witnessing in these lives of these men is a turning point.