Gavin's exceptional debut collection, set mainly in southern California, harkens to an earlier literary Los Angeles, that of Nathanael West, who, in The Day of the Locust, called Hollywood a "dream dump...the Sargasso of the imagination."
Gavin's bleakly funny, inventive stories feature hapless men caught between dire, pitiless reality—busted loves, dead parents, stillborn careers—and a golden (or at least spray-paint–gilded) mythology of manhood and of success that they can neither believe in nor bring themselves (quite) to throw out. Several stories feature young men making disastrous decisions and then following them to their conclusions in a way that would seem bathetic except that these young men, not having the consolation of delusion, steam toward misery with eyes open and mordant wit intact. There's the impoverished 20-something in "Bermuda" who gets himself fired from his job as a Meals on Wheels deliveryman so as to chase his reluctant beloved to her new job teaching music in paradise. He does this not to win her back—that's not in the cards, and he knows it—but because he sees that the only way out of the narrative he's foolishly invested so much in is to keep spiraling down to its humiliating end. In "Elephant Doors," an assistant to a mercurial, Belgium-obsessed quiz-show host is made to wriggle through a doggy door in the house of his ex-wife on a commando mission that cannot end but badly. The protagonist of "Illuminati" is a battered screenwriter still trying, long after the glory has faded, to nourish both himself and the "exalted visions I had of my future" off the proceeds from his one payday—for a "multi-ethnic buddy cop adventure comedy" called Hyde & Sikh. The poignant finale is a diptych about father-and-son toilet salesmen, the old man a veteran who feels most at home traversing the freeways, the son a fish hopelessly out of water, both bereft after the slow death by cancer of the woman—mother and wife—they loved.
The best kind of satire: barbed and hilarious, but suffused with compassion.