- It's All in the Title
166 Pages; Print, $12.99
In his quirky social satire, Richard Klin masterfully details a college dropout's take on the late 1970s working class. His novel, Petroleum Transfer Engineer, presents the ramshackle world of a young part-time New Jersey turnpike gas station attendant—an attendant who sees his place as temporary, a purgatory of sorts, courtesy of his breakdown and premature departure from the hallowed halls of academia.
The pace of the novel flows to a brisk and whimsical beat. We follow along with the protagonist, Francis, as rapid-fire vignettes alternate between the grind of uniformed shift-work and his awkward interactions with the outside world. Klin presents Francis as our anti-hero, a coming of age young man who flirts with the idea that a person's intellect is defined by their job and, paradoxically, their job is determined by their education. Francis personifies the bridge-of-the-nose monocle so many intellectuals find themselves squinting through when observing the working class. In the snobbish mind of Francis, only the learned man understands that he deserves the choicest of meats.
It made Francis sad. She was so utterly unaware of bowling's blue-collar connotations. Perusing the photo made him even sadder: A whole array of women in their team shirts, all of them smiling delightedly at the camera, blissfully ignorant of their consigned socio-economic role.
Francis's darkly humorous, and often self-deprecating, interactions with the outside world are anything but trivial. From his reiterated desire to witness all 50 state license plates, or his misadventure when seeking out a prostitute in Atlantic City (only to embarrassingly flee from a peep show), to his delusional fantasy of a graduation steak dinner and the constant replaying of "Pomp and Circumstance," Klin keeps the reader begging for more. Francis's character is a combination of Ignatius J. Reilly's snarky social intellect (John Kennedy O'Toole's Confederacy of Dunces ) and Bukowski's take on awkward masculine sexuality. Klin's portrayal of Francis teeters on the edge of caricature, but his mastery of rendering doesn't allow the anti-hero to devolve into something glib. This is no easy feat, especially when implementing a contradictory and pretentious protagonist.
While Klin takes the reigns on rendering, the register at times was jarring. I am well aware that one should not judge a book by its cover, but I consider the title fair game. Petroleum Transfer Engineer embodies the foreshadowing of a bombastic narrator and protagonist, which leads to my only critique of the novel. While I understand the intent of the ostentatious register—to depict Francis's cognitive dissonance between his perceived position in society and his actual part-time job—the method can be grating to the rhythm of the work. Truth be told, I found myself distracted at times by the sporadic insert of overwrought wordplay. The flurry of excessive adjectives took away from the subtle, yet picturesque, interactions at play and interrupted the beautiful rhythm of Klin's quick traveling prose and wit. This feast of words, if prepared properly, can allow the reader to digest the work through bite-sized morsels, without fear of choking on a dense bone; overindulgence with seasonings is a recipe to sour any reader's stomach with rotgut. This is my only critique of the work if it even can be considered a critique, and fortunately occurs rarely (most often in Part One).
Regardless of the verbose moments early on, Klin's narrative gallops along at breakneck speed. I attribute this to the form within the work. Part One of the novel is a series of brief chapters (averaging approximately 3 pages each), traversing between a post-Vietnam war era gas station and Francis's recollection of his collegiate mental breakdown. Klin's style provides for a dazzling carnival ride of memories interspersed with antics on the Atlantic City boardwalk and New Jersey Turnpike. There is a seamless incorporation of systematic flashbacks coinciding with gas station patrons, failed personal relationships, and the semester leading up...