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."
Most of these stories are set in the Southern California of fast food outlets, warehouses, swampy swimming pools, browned golf courses, real estate booms and busts, and the limbo of the freeways. “The Luau,” the first of the stories that make up "Middle Men," gives us Matt Costello, mentioned above, the son of a plumbing-supplies rep. He left college to care for his dying mother, an act that was both kind and a chance to introduce direction into his own life. “When he moved home it felt like a relief because he had a purpose; each day he knew exactly what he had to do, and nobody expected anything from him.” After his mother’s death, Matt is simply stuck and motiveless, waiting, as Galvin’s characters tend to, for something to happen. Finally his father gets him a job in the plumbing supplies business.
This is its own world. Peopled with chancers and canny adepts, it is tough and arcane, a business where a widely distributed faulty ballcock has a seismic effect, and where plumbing supplies are sold according to “a strange and mystifying calculus.” The process (whereby “factory sold to the rep, the rep to the wholesaler, the wholesaler to the contractor, but sometimes the rep skipped a step and talked directly to the contractor, telling him which wholesaler to buy from....”) is as byzantine as it is obnoxious to the MBAs who have arrived – we learn in the following story – to plant the kiss of death on the whole idiosyncratic sales culture.
Here I should note that jobs are woven into Gavin’s stories – as they are not in the fiction of most other writers – in an essential and enriching way. Matt’s tour of the world of plumbing-supplies is that of a naïf among a vanishing breed of men, and offers a view of the life which, as it happens, he won’t have. That life belongs to his father, Martin, the center of “Costello,” a sales rep who averages 50,000 miles a year on the freeways. He is now floating between the past and the death of his wife a year ago, and the future that holds the extinction of his sort of job and the inevitable loss of his house sinking under three mortgages.
“Three mortgages, babe, each one more magnificent than the last.” That statement captures what we like about Matt, his spirit in the face of bad luck and past decisions. It’s Saturday, after all, and he has his pool with its raft and the sports page, crossword puzzle, cigarettes, Zippo, and a copy of the industry paper, the Pipeline, announcing that he’s been nominated for sales rep of the year. He sees himself as Magellan becalmed in the Doldrums. Adversity and disappointment come to him in this story, but he, like all of Gavin’s characters at their own junctures in life, is not unmanned or as adequately defeated as his circumstances would seem to demand.
If Gavin has a weakness, it is that he ends some stories with a sudden over-portentous act – tearing up a check, shaving a head, flipping a dead animal into another man’s pool – but that is an affliction to which short stories are prone. Otherwise, these stories with their fine calibrations of bleakness, comedy, and compassion beautifully conjure the emotional perplexity of people afloat. They are superb and suggest that, for Jim Gavin at least, there truly is a promising future.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.