Adam Cullen, one of the also-ran protagonists in Jim Gavin’s debut story collection, is a young veteran of L.A.’s robust community of unpromising stand-up comics. At one point, he finds himself sucked into dispensing pompous advice to an aspiring comic with poor taste in mentors. While doing so he sees “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 Gavin’s “Middle Men” (Simon and Schuster, 224 pages, $22) are leading lives several rungs below those they’d envisioned, struggling slouchily to square their ambitions with their stations and likely prospects. They’re SoCal nephews of Raymond Carver’s working- and middle-class sad sacks, dropout ex-dormmates of Sam Lipsyte’s underachieving wags. Their sales numbers are abysmal; their entrepreneurial schemes sound bad on paper and look ridiculous in prototype.
“Middle Men” is arranged chronologically in that the hero of its first story is a high school basketball hopeful (with sinking hopes), the hero of its last a widow nearing retirement age. It’s a reasonable strategy except that it forces Gavin to hold his most distinctive and affecting material until the later going. The reader might take a Benjamin Button approach, though there’s momentum and wit even in the collection’s less substantial and more familiar stories.
Save for a few interludes in the Bay Area and Bermuda, the stories take place in Los Angeles, and Gavin’s loving portrait of the conurbation’s ugly beauty, particularly of Orange County, is clearly born of a lifetime of observation and many comforting visits to Del Taco. Gray freeways, sickly green pools and Disney fireworks are particularly effective scene-setters in the book’s semi-autobiographical closing diptych, which by turns portrays a father-son pair of plumbing salesmen. Matt is the inept beginner, Marty the gifted if somewhat Loman-like lifer; both are grieving — here in a stupor, there with mean spirits — the death of the Costello matriarch.
Other highlights are “Bermuda,” a grimy yet wistful account of a young love affair, and “Bewildered Decisions in Times of Mercantile Terror,” which shifts perspectives between two characters — one a woman! — and despite its arch title is a big-hearted tale of professional and mental-health disruptions. A few of Gavin’s endings are a touch fizzling, but “Bewildered” closes with real grace.
Faced with stories of failure, readers understandably petition for fragments of hope. Gavin delivers, though his characters are less likely to overcome failure than they are to accept it with a swell of relief. Hope comes in part from hints that they’ll move on to something they’re better suited to, but there’s also a perhaps Epicurean philosophy at work here that sees lowered desire and expectations as a route to happiness. It’s almost un-American, but at a time when American upward mobility seems increasingly mythological, Gavin’s middle men might be on to something.
Dylan Hicks is a Twin Cities writer, musician and author of “Boarded Windows.”