4. Middle Men, by Jim Gavin

28 Jan

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Middle Men by Jim Gavin is an oddly effervescent collection of linked stories about small failures and stunted lives in middle-class California. The heroes (each one chronologically older than the last) are united in having dreams they aren’t able to realize—a basketball scholarship to college, a girlfriend, getting some laughs for a comedy routine—and are all flawed in ordinary ways that Gavin evokes with great humor.

The basketball-playing high school student of the first story has “a weird concave chest that was a major source of shame,” and is both ambitious and twerpy. He finds his coach’s habit of going barefoot on the court “troubling,” because, “authority figures usually wore shoes.”  The wanna-be comedian works as a PA for a game-show (briefly, it also doesn’t work out). Here’s a moment from his awful standup routine: “‘I finally found the self-help book that’s going to unlock my potential. It’s called Mein Kampf.’ Nothing, absolutely nothing. Only Frankie with a squeal of delight. ‘I’ve got the audiobook on my iPod and it really gets me going when I’m doing hills on the elliptical’. Coughs, bottles sliding back and forth on tables.”

The stories are monuments to the ordinary, the 99-percent, the middle-class, the most-of-us who end up not successes or failures but somewhere in the middle. (This does pose the question, Should there be monuments to the ordinary? Is that the point of monuments? According to the minutiae school of late-period realist short fiction, the MFA-program special, the answer is a resounding yes. I am not always so sure, but Gavin does it well.)

The last story, Middle Men, comes in two parts. Part I is a story like the others, of a 30-year-old man “broke and living at home” after his mother dies, who, for lack of better options, gets a job working at his dad’s company in plumbing sales, and isn’t very good at that, either. Part II is the story of the father, a decent guy, a working man, grieving for his dead wife. He’s in debt. “Fifteen years without a vacation. Never taking her out to dinner, not once.” He’s eating badly. But he has his job, and a feature written about him in Pipeline magazine, and his concerned adult children, and he’s going to be ok. For him, all the little failures have added up to a qualified success.

It’s this that has kept me thinking about these quiet, light-handed stories. I believe in that kind of success—a pool, a wife, some kids, a fundamentally decent guy. But I wonder how real it is, and how much is the idealization of a lost generation, and if that kind of thing will be attainable for any of the other characters in the book, in this vastly changed world. I think I’m supposed to wonder. We all should.

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