Secret Harmonies: A Conversation with Jim Gavin




JIM GAVIN HAS A THING for the fuckups. His work chronicles the scrubs who can’t quite, or just won’t, get their shit together. They populate his 2013 short story collection, Middle Men, filling its pages with tales of self-sabotage and poorly thought-out plans. They roam depressing open-mic nights, lousy high school basketball programs, and boozy ceremonies for plumbing supplies salesmen. Gavin shows a level of empathy toward them they may not always deserve, but he never resorts to sanctimonious glorification. There’s always a deflating truth lurking in the next paragraph, plus probably a reference to Del Taco.

Gavin has now migrated his sensibility across media as the creator of the television show Lodge 49, which is wrapping up its second season on AMC. Lodge 49 focuses on the lives of Sean “Dud” Dudley (Wyatt Russell) and his twin sister, Liz (Sonya Cassidy), who find themselves deep in debt and emotionally adrift after the disappearance of their father. While Liz spent much of the first season collecting cash tips at a breastaurant called Shamrock’s and dipping her toe into corporate culture, Dud threw himself into the workings of the titular fraternal lodge, which belongs to the fictional Order of the Lynx. This mysterious organization could hold the key to the secrets of alchemy and might somehow be connected to the elusive, cosmic forces that control the universe. It could also just be a place where security guards and recently laid-off members of the aerospace industry can run up a bar tab and forget their problems for the night.

Like Gavin’s fiction, Lodge 49 embraces a worn-down SoCal specificity. The action happens in sun-bleached strip-mall donut shops and around neglected backyard swimming pools. No one is ever in a rush. There’s always a beer waiting for you. The new season remains a fun, shaggy hang, but it’s also packed with hidden messages that may unlock the meaning of existence. Or maybe, as Liz said in a recent episode, “It’s all just a zig-zag to nowhere.”

I spoke to Gavin over the phone about why Lodge 49 is like no other show on TV right now.

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ERIC DUCKER: I’m intrigued by your interest in depicting what it’s like to feel like a loser. Why is that a compelling idea for you?

JIM GAVIN: I’ve always been more interested in failure than victory. I don’t think you learn anything from winning. If you accumulate enough failure, you might actually have a different kind of victory in your life, which is wisdom. Tales of people trying and not getting what they want, but getting something else, always felt true to me. I’m someone who has been lucky in different ways in my life, but I think people on the outside, that’s where the action is. I don’t really write aspirational characters. My aspirations are very modest and small in all areas. For me, it’s just about documenting that aspect of my life and the people in my life. I came from a family that just didn’t really value money in a sense. We never really had it. You find happiness in other areas. Nothing I enjoy or that makes me happy requires money. I’m perfectly happy to have it now that I’m a TV asshole, which is a new development, and it helps me help others, but in the end, a burrito, going to the beach, shooting some baskets, going to the library, those are the eternal verities.

A lot of your work is about how people’s economic realities shape their lives. I’ve seen Lodge 49 called a “low-stakes show,” but people’s financial situations are huge to them. Why are you interested in finding the dramatic possibilities in how people make money and spend money and deal with debt?

It’s almost like an underreported story. Just living in that world where, if your car breaks down, your life is going to be ruined for a year — that is high stakes for someone. That type of thing is rarely depicted. My favorite writer is James Joyce. Ulysses is many things, but in the end it’s Stephen Dedalus trying to get through his day, trying to figure out who he’s going to borrow a couple bucks from to have a drink and where he’s going to sleep that night. He doesn’t make it dramatic or tragic, it’s just the reality of that day. That’s what I’m trying to depict — not the tragedy or the absurdity of it, it’s just what I know from most of my life. I don’t know any better, but I do feel a loyalty to the people in my life who I grew up with and my family. I’m trying to portray them in a way that makes their little struggles feel epic. That is the Joycean conceit.

There’s this idea in your work of seeing coincidences in the universe, then deciding whether or not to let those coincidences guide you. Where do you fall on that spectrum?

Naturally, I am a skeptic. I can be fairly cynical, but I also have to admit that I’ve had some very eerie moments of coincidence in my life. They’re such a rupture in your forward momentum in the workaday world that you almost have to ignore them. If you actually took a moment to look at them and unravel them, you couldn’t carry on with your everyday life. I think Dud, as a character, doesn’t get past them. He really is like, “Surely there is some secret harmony here and I need to pull this thread until I find it.” Today, [Lodge 49 executive producer] Peter Ocko said something like, “For us, reality isn’t the absence of magic; magic is included in reality.” There are moments [in life] where you do feel like you’ve stepped into another world or when time just feels off. Our show is a place for that to bloom and have a larger meaning. People like Carl Jung, this is their whole deal, almost making a science of this notion of synchronicity. 

How heavy are the conversations in the writers’ room?

It goes back and forth — there’ll be some discussion of Borgesian metaphysics and then it’s like, “Dud is going to run out of gas here,” or, “How many donuts is he going to order?” We have the high and low. Also, so many of the books from writers I love grapple with these different notions of time and the nature of reality. We do that in a subtle way, it is definitely there, but we never lose track of that reality that, whether we like it or not, we do live in.

The new season begins with a scene of Dud hallucinating in the hospital. The sequence is filled with symbolism, which almost trains you to start watching the show looking for messages everywhere. Was that an intentional move on your part?

Absolutely. We’re a show that punishes you if you are looking at your phone while you’re watching. Nothing is there by accident — an offhand line takes on a larger meaning, or things in the background can be just as important as things you’re looking directly at. As far as that moment with the hallucination, it’s kind of laying the table for the whole season. The whole season can be seen there. We’re going to get a little crazier. Ideally, a viewer is like, What is going on here? I need to take a second look.

Since specificity of place is so important in your work, why did you choose to set Lodge 49 in Long Beach?

I have a personal connection to it. I was born there. Growing up, I lived in Orange and Orange County, then in Long Beach. My family is all back in Long Beach now, and I’ve lived there as an adult. My dad’s a Long Beach guy. It’s always lived in my mind in a special way. There’s something unique and distinct about Long Beach. It’s rarely photographed, and I find its history fascinating. 

We’re almost telling the history of Long Beach through the story of the lodge itself, but it’s kind of the history of America. It was a booming suburban place post–World War II. It had government investment in aerospace, with this thriving middle class that is kind of on the way out. It’s a place I know very well, but it’s also a picture of America. We’re not trying to write an essay here, but those things are always in the back of our minds when we’re weaving together these crazy stories.

Does Long Beach have any particular connections to California mystical thinking? People usually associate that stuff with places like Malibu or Big Sur.

During the postwar years, there were two massive Masonic lodges [in Long Beach]; it had the largest Elks lodge in the country. In that sense, it was a place that had very strong civic engagement and huge membership numbers in these secret societies. It feels like a regular, everyday world, but those Masonic temples have a lot of strange rituals and stuff going on. Those things live side-by-side in a place like Long Beach, which is a very rich vein for us.

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Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles who covers film, TV, music, and cultural ephemera.

 

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