Beyond the comic effect and the hankering for a burrito (leave your readers hungry, right?), why exactly is there a Del Taco reference in almost every story of Jim Gavin’s debut story collection? Gavin explains that although the motif was inadvertent, he grew up eating at the chain, so it feels like home (check out his Tumblr page if you think we’re kidding). Even if you’ve never been to southern California, as soon as you step into Middle Men, you will feel a sense of familiarity. In the spirit of the ubiquitous ode to home of the Wizard of Oz, Gavin transforms his middle-class southern California upbringing from the dusty crawl space of nostalgia into a visceral reality.
“I can’t imagine writing about any other place,” Gavin says. Perhaps his imagination does not travel far from home, but his memory serves him well, earning his stories space in the pages of The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Esquire, among other publications. Line by line his own life—from the gravity of his mother’s death to the dribbling fodder of working in the plumbing industry—materializes into poignant realism and comedy of the absurd. Throughout the collection, a locally-produced authenticity animates SoCal’s lesser explored imagery: the “hazy, and inscrutable” concrete landscape, including the “blind and savage” 710 Freeway, the “stark, geometric banks of the Los Angeles River,” and the cul-de-sacs of “pigeons and graffiti and concertina wire.”
Gavin may follow the gritty path of Nathanael West and Bret Easton Ellis in his Californian literary lineage, but he never satirizes his allegiance to this place. He is capable of finding beauty in the barren highways of Anaheim when he writes, “All that concrete crisscrossing in the air, north and south, east and west, a compass rose.” Hope also emerges among the sad lot of characters who comprise the collection, mostly young men dragging their feet through their own purgatories: an almost-good high school basketball player who attempts to create a mythology of greatness, a wannabe stand-up comedian, a distraught boyfriend who cashes in every cent to search for the girlfriend who does not want to be found. Instead of calling his characters losers, Gavin emphasizes their affable, redeemable qualities and the slim chance that they might find their way.
In many instances he secures the lost characters with a guide through the darkness, be it in the form of a ghost, an eccentric quiz show host, or a wealthy uncle. “There are knuckleheaded characters that someone is trying to take under their wing,” Gavin says. “These characters can’t see how the mentors are teaching them something about life, but as a writer I can see it.” As these characters linger on the precipice between failure and near-transcendence, it is their voices that loudly reverberate over the abyss. For example, in “Illuminati,” a striving screenwriter masters self-deprecation and brutal honesty to describe his own turn of good luck, “Two years ago, all my dumb ideas and tenuous connections came together.” When the screenwriter finds success by selling a story, he still cannot climb down from the ledge of humility: “After taxes, and after my manager and lawyer got their piece, I took home $57,000, a figure that somehow was both less than I imagined and more than I ever dreamed possible.”
By arduously crafting a blueprint for voice from the very beginning of his writing process, Gavin fuels his idling characters with a jolt of life. “If I spend three months on a story, I spend two-and-a-half months on the first page,” he explains. Yet the toiling feels organic as he seamlessly maneuvers between first and third person, through lengthy scenes entirely of dialogue, and the occasional comedic monologue. “Voice is a function of obsession—what the characters care about most,” he says.
Many of these characters are obsessed with the weight of the middle-class—some are unemployed, and although not yet sinking into poverty, they are haunted by their lack of potential and self-worth. Gavin, who witnessed his parents struggle through recessions, makes a strong case for the hardships of the middle-class, an often-overlooked group in the more typically portrayed extremes of southern California, polarized by the clichéd wealth of Beverly Hills and impoverishment of South Central. “My childhood was a happy time, but I watched that kind of world collapse,” he says. “My concerns are not to take a pitchfork and run to the castle, but just to document that life of the absolute middle—if you take one step back you are in an abyss, but there’s also the possibility of taking one step up.”
In becoming an advocate for the “middle men,” Gavin’s attention is stretched thin when he turns to women. “The female characters are on the page less, but they are the strongest,” says Gavin, in a partial mea culpa for his “dude” book. The women carry the heft of omniscience even if they are not fully developed, which reinforces the isolation and vulnerability of the men struggling with the “charade of masculinity,” as Gavin calls it. When each man’s gig “to be a man” expires, he must confront some deeper version of his humanity, an identity beyond his maleness.
In the title story of the collection, the pill-popping, career-less son of a toilet salesman, who is mourning the loss of his recently deceased mother, searches to fill the void by trying out his father’s once laughable profession. Endlessly driving between desolate locations to make a sale, the son fails at the job, but reaches a better understanding of the difficulty of his father’s work and the encompassing grief they share for the matriarch of their family. Like many of the other characters in Middle Men who haven’t yet fully transformed into adults, the son recognizes the grace of sacrificing for others.
Bridgette Bates is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Boston Review, Fence, American Letters & Commentary, and elsewhere.