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Coming of Age in the ’80s

Wed, 06/14/2023 - 15:01
June Gervais
Sofia Titvinidze

“Jobs for Girls With Artistic Flair”
June Gervais
Penguin Books, $18

Back when tattoos were still a bit taboo, particularly for women, before nearly every cool Long Island town boasted at least one parlor, there were places like Mulley's Tattoo.

This is where June Gervais has set her debut novel, "Jobs for Girls With Artistic Flair," in which East End readers will find familiar but fictionalized places and personalities to go with real-life history: Hurricane Gloria blows through, the nation watches the Challenger space shuttle explode, the AIDS epidemic rages on.

And Gina Mulley, the protagonist, finds herself.

Just out of high school, Gina, a consummate list-maker with abundant artistic potential running through her veins, sets out to find a fulfilling job. She's already tried working in a head shop, a bait shop, the movie theater, the card store, and a gas station, either quitting or getting fired after a few months at most.

She longs to become a tattoo artist herself, but almost everyone around her has an agenda to impose. Dominic, her brother, who owns Mulley's Tattoo, wants her to go to college and get the heck out of the struggling town of Blue Claw. Mackie, one of Dominic's employees, is hell-bent on scaring her out of the idea of tattooing. Jeri, an investor, wants Gina to conform to an uncomfortable idea of what a woman tattooer should be. Nicolas, an eccentric European psychic, wants to "experience" her. Gina's mother, Stella, wants someone she can lean on. Only Rick, a kindhearted mentor type, and Anna, an open-minded breath-of-fresh-air, allow Gina to be who she really is.

Here is a book for anyone who had no idea what came next after high school graduation, who had trouble finishing what he started, who found herself falling into forbidden love, and whose own faded tattoos are memorials to gritty glory days to hopefully never be had again (or which, as Gina realizes, are "a truth you'd kept to yourself that you were finally willing to have in the open, to be seen"). Not only is "Jobs for Girls" a perfect Pride Month paperback — it comes out on Tuesday, about a year after its hardcover release — but it's also got everything that a 1980s Long Island coming-of-age story should have.

Favorite scenes include Rick's aunt Andrea's post-mastectomy tattoo, which makes her feel beautiful again, and an underground circus party where Gina learns what not to do as a tattooer.

Susan Scarf Merrell, the author of the novel "Shirley," and whose name and work are familiar in this area, wrote in a review for The Common in September that "Jobs for Girls" is "a story of people who do their best to be better and then fail and try again with courage and integrity."

Ms. Gervais (who briefly worked at The Star) recently told a crowd at Canio's Books in Sag Harbor that she spent about 20 years writing this book, which was inspired by her childhood experience of sitting on the floor of a tattoo parlor watching her mother get inked. It was meticulously researched, with an authenticity drawn from long conversations with female pioneers in the field and with Marvin Moskowitz, a third-generation tattooer whose family has been credited with opening the first tattoo shop on Long Island after New York City banned them in 1961 (the ban was lifted in 1997). Endearingly, Ms. Gervais hands out temporary tattoos of her own design at her events, which will include a book signing at Canio's on July 1.

With prose that straddles gentle and gritty — the kind that makes a writer say, "Damn, I wish I wrote that" — Ms. Gervais blurs the line between literary and commercial fiction. This book is easy to fall into, hard to put down, and satisfying to the end.

June Gervais grew up in the Shirley-Mastic area.

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