Waiting for the Happy Times to End: Jim Gavin’s Middle Men
Simon & Schuster, February 2013
Reviewed by Douglas Silver
Thomas Pynchon observed of Los Angeles’ environs in The Crying of Lot 49: “Like so many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts—census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway.” The Southern California of Jim Gavin’s debut collection Middle Men embodies the same mutable landscapes, viewed through the lenses of disenchanted men grappling with the very larval shapelessness of the region they call home.
The most rewarding pieces are first-person retrospectives that find Gavin’s affable sluggards evoking the height of their loafing, and juxtaposing dark humor and wistfulness for a blend that enrich these narratives with the taunting specter of what could have been, yet never detracting from his characters choices. In “Play the Man,” the collection’s strongest offering, Pat Linehan, a high school basketball player, is forced to transfer to a second-rate prep school and reconcile his dashed hopes after losing his spot at the much-touted Trinity Prep. Wit and pathos suffuse this layered bildungsroman, as Gavin deftly portrays a teen whose ironclad work ethic and monk-like ascetics have cursed him with hard-bitten pragmatism.
While this self-awareness portends the death knell of far-fetched desires typical of adolescence, it instills in him steadfastness that outpaces both his peers and his putative role models. Pat expresses no shame when, in response to his teammate’s mother, he confesses that he is not a fan of Michael Jordan, but instead John Williams and Pearl Washington, college stars who flamed out after short, ignoble pro careers, as well as Len Bias, a top recruit who overdosed on cocaine within days of being drafted into the NBA. He refuses to let the caprice of fandom taint his memories of those players he worshipped when his prowess seemed as boundless as his hoop dreams. Ultimately, he accepts the mother’s lighthearted condescension with the same bemused inevitability with which he reflects on setting aside his prohibition on masturbation, acknowledging that the simple pleasures are all he’ll ever know.
“It was a happy time and I couldn’t wait for it to end,” states Brian early on in “Bermuda,” (a sentiment that could serve as the collection’s mantra) as he reminisces on the vicissitudes of his first love affair, with a woman he met while working as an indifferent delivery driver for Meals on Wheels at the age of twenty-three. Midway through the story, recalling the romance’s heady apex, he admits, “I miss those days. Nothing like that happens anymore.” Later still, after his love interest relocates to Bermuda for a job teaching music and the couple is relegated to pen pals: “I still have these letters, not because I’ve been pining for Karen for ten years, but because they are the last real letters anyone has ever sent me.”
It is here Gavin exhibits great sensitivity for his hero—one plagued by either the false nostalgia endemic of thirty-somethings, or simply hankering for the increasingly elusive sense of nuance he fears will evaporate with his coming nuptials—by supplying a prismatic lens that enables the reader to sympathize with both characters, past and present, and remember that the potency of first love is part and parcel to the altar of true love.
In Middle Men, even born and bred Californians are consigned to the class of diaspora enjoyed by those pie-eyed quixotics doomed to fall victim to the bejeweled gauntlet of stardom. As is the case of Adam Cullen, aspiring stand-up comic and newest production assistant on television’s longest running quiz show, who wades through the high and low elements of entertainment in “Elephant Doors.” The curious rapport the program’s celebrity host, Max Lavoy, strikes up with Adam supplies narrative thrust, though most memorable is the bleak and unwavering humor in Adam’s strained open mic performance at the “beer dungeon” El Goof: “The worst job I ever had was clerk at a party supply store. It was like being alone on my birthday five days a week….You know, the way porn titles make puns on Hollywood movies. I saw a great one the other day for The Matrix. It was called Teenage Ass Sluts Volume Ten.” As Lavoy’s true motives are revealed, Adam’s choice is one between the shameless Babbittry of television and bitter resignation for the inside-baseball of the comedy world.
The surefooted prose and consistently risible dialogue permit Gavin to navigate long swaths of dead air. However some readers may deem the collection front-weighted, with later stories impaired by rambling exposition and unsatisfying resolutions. This was most apparent in the first part of “Middle Men,” which wraps up with the foregone conclusion that its protagonist’s career with the plumbing supply company is terminated, while offering little by way of challenging reader expectations. But if Gavin is prone to overwrite it is in service of depicting the full extent of his characters ennui that so often finds them prowling California’s highways with no real destination. It is this very ennui, poignant and all the more menacing for its cruel banality, that makes it easy to trust in Gavin’s vision. His protagonists are not middle men in the sense of intermediaries. Instead they are men middling in their stations, operating under a dim spell of perpetual transience that both stymies their thrust and bestows them with necessary sangfroid to stay the journey.
Douglas Silver is Late Night Library’s New York City Manager. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Hobart, Beloit Fiction Journal, The Southeast Review, Copper Nickel, Cream City Review, Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere.