Writer Jim Gavin crafts a collection of stories featuring young men drifting between youth and adulthood.
Reviewed by Katherine A. Powers for Barnes & Noble ReviewSkip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Middle Men, Jim Gavin’s first collection of stories, takes its title from the book’s final two-story pairing, but could also describe the central characters of every one of these poignant, comedy-flecked entries. In most of them we find a young man drifting between the expectations of youth and the elusive, maybe impossible success – or at least condition – of adulthood. It is a makeshift stretch of existence, sometimes a rather lengthy one before destiny’s verdict comes in. Gavin’s young men are not what you might call on the ball, and their stories can begin “As a boy, Matt Costello often wondered what his dad did when he left the house in the morning,” or “Bobby’s office, for the time being, was the Berkeley Public Library.”
Take Brian of “Bermuda.” He is 23-years old and lives in a crummy apartment with a lot of roommates and hangers-on: “My room was one-half of the living room and my mattress was a single, a mighty single, floating on a sea of thin brown carpet.” He has a part-time job delivering Meals on Wheels and falls in love with Karen, a pianist ten years his senior, a drifter of sorts. Matters come to a head when Karen moves to Bermuda to teach music at a private school and Brian manages to borrow just enough money to pursue her there. (“I passed a little park and saw two private-school kids in blazers, sharing a cigarette and cursing in their dainty little accents.”) The result is a dose of reality beautifully managed by Gavin, who subtly contrasts this futile chapter in his character’s life with a brief glimpse at a future.
Gavin’s comic gift and sharp eye for fatuousness are evident in “Elephant Doors.” The main character, Adam, would seem at first to know what he’s doing: He’s a production assistant at a Hollywood TV-studio complex – a lowly position, yes, but the envy of those less fortunate. Alas, his real ambition is to be a stand-up comic. He attends a weekly open-mike event, a gruelingly awful affair held under the auspices of an aging stoner and bar owner called Frankie: “Every Friday, Frankie sat in the back of his crappy bar, laughing generously and running outrageous tabs. Adam thought of Father Damien among the lepers."
The prospect of what Adam is sure will be a knockout performance at the mike brings him a sense of his future: "He looked down Lincoln Boulevard, a treeless span of auto body shops, futon outlets, and discount shoe emporiums. Adam savored these sights, knowing that someday, in a nostalgic mood, he would look back fondly on his tawdry origins." The problem is, as his act shows with excruciating clarity, Adam is profoundly unfunny, and after his performance his spirits take a dive: "He was waiting for something to click. In books and interviews all of his comic heroes had described a moment onstage when, after stumbling for many years, they suddenly, and oftentimes, inadvertently, became themselves.” His existential predicament is typical of Gavin's characters: "He imagined the two versions of himself – the young fraud and the old pro – standing on either side of a dark chasm. If there was some blessed third version of himself, the middle man who could bridge the gap, Adam saw no trace of him in the darkness."