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 particularly sly character description appears in “Bermuda,” whose narrator recounts: “She had always felt uncomfortable in bars, the expression on her face too hostile to attract friendly people, but not hostile enough, apparently, to repel lunatics.”
The strongest works in any collection are typically the first, last, and title stories, which holds true of the seven substantial pieces in Middle Men. Complicating this case, however, the book presents its title story as a two-part work also serving as the final one, leading me to wonder if the author harbored designs at one point to link his collection, after all, but decided otherwise.
Part one of this finale, “The Luau,” and part two, “Costello,” feature a family mourning the loss of their matriarch, while trying to stay afloat in the grueling field of plumbing supply sales. It’s a milieu Gavin relates with great verisimilitude, this world of hydraulic pallet jacks, 16-inch PVC pipe, and defective ballcocks, of soul-crushing cold calls, glad-handing, and rote memorization that son Matt can’t begin to master, in part one, but that his dad Marty — the Costello of part two — has managed to shape into a lifelong career.
According to the cover letter Gavin’s editor supplied for the advance reader copy, the author himself worked at one point as a plumbing salesman, and perhaps this accounts for why the world feels so real. But authenticity has its limits in art. So, it’s gratifying to watch Gavin choose only the most salient details about this unglamorous life and use them to create a running metaphor for whatever’s unglamorous about our own — and then subordinate all of that to his cast of down-but-not-out characters, in particular the empathetically realized father.
Staring down late middle age, possible foreclosure, and the recent loss of his wife to cancer, Marty Costello maintains the sort of grace under pressure that would have pleased Hemingway. In response to the defective ballcock fiasco, which drives lesser characters to distraction, Costello quietly proves his mettle. In this realm of toilet parts, fumy warehouses, and the lonesome freeways connecting them, he is more or less a knight.
There’s nothing high-concept or flashy about this 30-page story, nothing particularly noteworthy about its plot even; instead its nourishments are simple ones, but satisfying.
In the kitchen, by the light of the refrigerator, Costello takes out a giant bag of hot dogs. Then a giant tub of mustard, then a giant tub of mayonnaise. Smart & Final, apocalypse shopping. He puts dogs on a paper plate, shoves them in the microwave. Waiting, he sets up four buns, slapping on mustard and mayonnaise. He takes a fifth bun, balls it up, dips it in the mayonnaise, swallows it whole. The dogs pop and hiss. He pours Pepsi from a two-liter bottle into a clean glass just out of the dishwasher. A bit of decorum. The television illuminates the family room, waves of blue, aquarium light. Costello, leaning forward in his recliner, a dish towel over his knees, eyes focused on the game, mayonnaise punctuating both sides of his mouth — this is how he eats. The kids are trying to get him out more. It’s been over a year, they say, you need to get out there, you need to do something, go somewhere. Go where? We’ve got the pool.
How wonderfully low to the ground that paragraph is willing to fly, kept aloft by the narrator’s alert consciousness. He understands the lameness of his position, which provides a solace of its own, throughout this portrait of dignified endurance, as it eases toward its pitch-perfect conclusion.
A couple of other stories, by comparison, seem to stop more than end, and one, “Elephant Doors,” takes a while to begin. Narrated by Adam, a production assistant for a TV quiz show (which also appears on the author’s own resume), “Elephant Doors” overdoes its satirical take on the show’s narcissistic host for much of the first third.
At least the satire is funny. As is Adam’s stand-up routine when it’s his turn to perform at a dive-bar open mic. Not funny the way a successful comedian would be, but in the cringe-inducing way he bombs, which is an incredibly tall order in its own right: fashioning deliberately bad jokes also meant to show potential in the failed comic. As an author, you’d have to be pretty secure in your own sense of humor to risk blowing it up like that, and the scene deserves its own special moment of appreciation. But when the narrator’s voice finally starts to bloom in earnest, and even the ridiculous quiz-show host is allowed to breathe, the story reveals its fuller richness and takes its place alongside the other wonders of this superlative debut.