WITHIN THE UNIVERSE of short story writers living in Los Angeles, a legend arose a couple years ago about a youngish guy who came out of nowhere, took a UCLA Extension class with the estimable Lou Mathews, then made the remarkable leap to a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. He soon went on to place one of his stories with The New Yorker and create competing interest among publishers for his book (“a story collection!” — his editor could hardly believe her own introduction to the advance reader copy). Believe it she should, because the collection, Middle Men by Jim Gavin, deserves its hype and demonstrates a top-shelf talent.
Making this debut even more rare, these stories are, with the exception of two, unlinked to one another — a truly disparate collection, though as its title suggests, they all feature men struggling against various states of limbo. Many characters also seem to be referencing a benignly Catholic upbringing, if not always their own, then possibly that of the author, who shows a temperamental preference for human decency and a structural one for resolutions of offbeat grace. Laid atop such conscientious bones — or, more accurately, flowing through their marrow — lives a brilliant sense of humor that animates each story and creates a state of near-continuous reading pleasure.
What makes serious literary fiction funny? A question for a larger, smarter essay, but the short answer lies mainly, like everything else in storytelling, with point of view. To dissect one small example from the book’s first page: a student athlete, after musing for a few initial sentences about his parochial school’s namesake, orients us to the story’s timeframe. “It was 1992,” he reports simply. “Our shorts were getting baggy and Magic had AIDS.”
The (albeit dark) humor and overall success of that summation has everything to do with how a high school basketball player might reduce the larger world to those essential points, while implicitly recognizing the absurdity of linking the trivial to the mortal, while furthermore presuming his reader’s acquaintance with Earvin “Magic” Johnson, whose superhuman nickname, lastly, sparkles against even the grim reality of a deadly immune disorder. The sentence provides a good litmus test for the book: if you appreciate it, you’ll probably like the rest.
That first story in the collection, “Play the Man,” offers a particularly seductive readability. The narrator, Pat, has been dropped from his prestigious basketball program and washed up at second-rate St. Polycarp, a school no college scout would bother to follow. Anxious about facing his former team in an upcoming tournament, he also lives in fear of spoiling his lifelong dreams of glory. Without giving away too much, I’ll simply note that several of the book’s stories present such dreams as burdensome, as an impediment to our happiness and sanity.
Having virtually no Latin, I had to look up the very last sentence of “Play the Man,” which under most circumstances I might have resented. But in this case, every preceding sentence had been so forthright, the story had earned my goodwill. And overall, Gavin’s writing exudes generosity: he does not withhold or obscure — he writes what he means and opens wide the window of each protagonist’s soul. Irony and ambiguity have their place in the collection, but not as substitutes for feeling. One particul...read more