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The adolescent outsider

PIZZA FACE, OR THE HERO OF SUBURBIABy Ken Siman

Grove Weidenfeld, $17.95

Reviewed by Philip Herter

First-time novelists often honor the old maxim, "Write what you know." Ken Siman has written such a heroically odd first novel, laced with painful and dorky detail, one hopes it flowed strictly from the author's imagination.

This dark comedy tells the story of Andy, an acne-encrusted teen-ager and his journey through 1970s suburbia. Andy, whose zit creams poison the family cat, has an innocent heart that beats for, among other things, Jimmy Carter, good penmanship and the boy who models underpants in the Sears catalog.

Ken Siman, who grew up in North Carolina, has reached into the shadows of American boyhood to paint a hilarious portrait of tortured adolescence. The author deftly recreates the suburban atmosphere of Burger Chefs, Foto Huts and Winn Dixies which almost become Andy's killing floor.

Pizza Face, or The Hero of Suburbia is all about the survival of a sensitive soul and overcoming the odds of American social mobility. As Andy begins to understand that he's gay, only his hobby _ collecting political campaign souvenirs _ helps him escape the meanness of everyday life.

The author's sharp depictions of dippy Americans, played off Andy's wide-eyed decency, provide many of the book's best laughs. With saintly earnestness, Andy survives cruel and loony Southerners and the circles of high school hell.

In language that runs from tender to queasy, Ken Siman keeps the pages turning with deadpan delivery. The story ends with the young man's apprenticeship to a cocaine-addled political consultant in America's capital, where it is easy to imagine a misfit like Andy doing great.

In Pizza Face, or the Hero of Suburbia Ken Siman has created a poster boy for the social casualties of the disheartening 1970s. Though comic, Andy's intriguingly strange story is told with compassion. Like a lot of teen-agers growing up lonely and confused, Andy is a miserable kid, but you can't help rooting for him.

Philip Herter got his driver's license in 1976.

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