Jim Gavin’s remarkable debut story collection takes us into the lives of seven unexceptional men. A deliveryman, a salesman, a dropout — they’re all blunderers, each living a sort of limbo existence. But Gavin doesn’t let them rest. He flips them over, shakes them. He makes them confront their failures and themselves.
And what better setting to explore such average lives than the soul-crushing backdrops of greater Los Angeles and Orange County? Gavin’s Southern California, for which he holds a begrudging love, is cluttered with concrete, billboards, strip malls and parking lots. Not to mention Del Taco establishments.
Brian, in Bermuda, is a Del Taco aficionado. Twenty-three years old, unencumbered by responsibilities, he cruises the SoCal freeways delivering hot plates for his part-time Meals on Wheels job. He lives in an apartment that looks like a “Moorish castle” with members of a band, none of whom are “overly employed.” Bongs and video games litter the floor.
“It was a happy time,” Brian says, “and I couldn’t wait for it to end.”
Into this postadolescent swamp comes Karen. She’s older, wiser, a classically trained pianist Adam meets on one of his drop-offs. Karen has washed ashore in California after a series of personal disasters. Naturally, their sudden romance is doomed from the start.
“This isn’t going to work,” Karen announces moments before having “seedy proletarian sex” with Brian in his delivery van. Soon she disappears to the island of Bermuda, and Brian goes in pursuit. Gavin knows how to make the reader cringe, especially with this strained relationship. Ultimately, the story pays homage to those events in life that loom large at the time but, as years pass, become oddly trivial.
In Elephant Days, Adam Cullen works as a production assistant on “the longest-running quiz show in television history.” He’s charged with delivering “game scripts” and “updated schedules” — and also doing dirty work for the show’s host, Max Lavoy, a narcissist who’s all teeth but no smile. After one of Max’s ludicrous plans backfires, Adam flunks out of the quiz show game. It’s one of the book’s funniest tales.
Indeed, Gavin’s funny. Bit players endow his stories with wondrous strangeness. There’s the dedicated hipster who keeps her amateur stand-up notes inside a Trapper Keeper. There’s the quiz show writer who “failed his way to the top” and is now known by studio tour guides as the dude who wears a “leather gimp mask” on his smoke breaks and a screenwriter who made a tidy sum off his screenplay, “a multiethnic buddy cop adventure comedy, Hyde & Sikh.”
Gavin has a light touch. His writing is unadorned. More than once he nails a character’s description with a single, bright phrase. One character is “a giant eyebrow with a man attached.”
While reading, I began to think Gavin might have been these men, or close versions of them. He understands their hopes and disappointments, and the boorish moments that pass between men when women aren’t around.
Two linked stories make up the collection’s weightiest section. Middle Men follows Marty and Matt Costello, father and son, both of whom are haunted by the loss of the family’s matriarch. In Part I, Matt auditions for the same job his father has held for 35 years. In order to learn the finer points of selling toilets to commercial clients, Matt shadows a seasoned salesman, Larry, who represents the Ultima 900, “one of their glamour lines.”
The pair crisscrosses freeways, talking shop. “Your job is to go out there every day and get your face kicked in,” Larry explains to Matt, adding, “It’s the only path to enlightenment.” Thankfully, Matt finds a different path toward enlightenment and throws himself clear of that train wreck of a profession.
While Matt’s story is the more ludicrous, his father’s section in Part II concusses the heart. Marty — widower, “plumbing lifer” — takes hits on the chin and still keeps going. He rarely complains. Instead he teases tiny pleasures out of life, such as watching the nightly Disneyland fireworks from his rooftop. Far off, just out of sight, he knows there’s a paradise out there.
Marty Costello lives alone. His dead wife’s voice is “still the outgoing message” on the machine. You’d think Marty would be bitter. He sells toilets, after all. He circumnavigates godforsaken freeway systems. But Gavin manages to work a minor miracle. Though Marty is a member of the denim class, his mind is a stately mansion. Marty discovers wonder in the commonplace. In the end, he draws strength from placing trust in ordinary things. He’s an everyman. And like Gavin, he wins us over.
Don Waters reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.