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Deadpan or Dead: Jim Gavin's Middle Men is the Real So Cal Existential Dread Deal

Good morning. Are you sure you've found the real deal when you see it? I mean the Real Deal, in caps, or in quotes, or whatever punctuation is required to separate if from the rest? Friends, home-grown So Cal short story writer Jim Gavin is the R.D., though most everybody already knew that except, it seems, Mr. Bib, from The New Yorker to my friend novelist Victoria Patterson--who turned me on to his work--and ZYZZYVA editor Oscar Villalon--who raved about Gavin on NPR. So here I am, the Bibliofella-come-lately, with my repentant, over-eager if justifiably excited upper case of enthusiasm for his short story collection about our sad, psychic and geographic region of despair and difficult resignation to a paradise.

From Long Beach to Echo Park, Riverside to Compton, with trips to the Inland Empire and a brief, doomed sojourn in the Bay Area, Gavin and his characters live and chart, respectively, the stunted emotional growth (or opposite of growth) of his band of "middle men," boys and adult males who struggle with the near-geographical emotional boundaries drawn by work, school, family, other boys and men. In the too-perfectly, ominously, hilariously titled "Bewildered Decisions in Times of Mercantile Terror," an overachiever with one foot in failure dreams half-heartedly of spiritual wholeness in her faraway ancestral European home even as she negotiates the failure of her corporate career in a doomed economy and tries to take care of a kind of alter ego, one in a series of Gavin's lost boys named, perfectly, Bobby. She is one of the few women in the collection. He is the incarnation of one in a series of hapless, feckless, just plan "less" young, old and middle-aged middle men. Nora, that smart, cynical striving yuppie dot com sales woman, works unhappily and yet successfully for a software company in the City while the feckless childhood family friend, a boy-man fuck-up, pretends to invent a miracle product so metaphorically perfect (there, I used that word again!) as to reinvent the whole idea of metaphor in "guy" stories and hustler stories about business culture and capitalism. The product is called "The Man Handle," and seems to be a totemic object, a psychological tool, an exercise device. Its only real purpose of function is to give Bobby something as pathetic physically (if funnily) as his go-nowhere imaginary life. Did I say perfect? Perfect.

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N. West - Just because
N. West - Just because

Gavin, who is, of course, a So Cal native, confronts our benighted if bedazzling spectacle of a region with the power and weary enthusiasm of a D.J. Waldie, Joan Didion or Raymond Chandler. Tone: intimate, yet from a distance. He is nearly Nathanael West when you stop to think about the wacky situations, but without the hyperbolic tone--though with plenty of wicked humor and, yes, tenderness and empathy.

His characters don't really deserve empathy, but who does? These certainly don't expect it. Life and work and family are never fulfilling, if nonetheless somehow rich--in texture, conversation, details. They are certainly un-rich in terms of affluence or success or material comfort. There's almost none of that. Everybody here wants to be somebody else, not somewhere else. Still, they are all stuck here, on the freeway - the most available and appropriate symbol, and well-used by Gavin - or at sorry plumbing conventions, losing high school basketball games, fast food joints (the characters favor Del Taco) and the famous high-end Riverside attraction run by a right-winger, the gaudy if "historic" Mission Inn. Everybody drinks too much. They seem to be Roman Catholic. So that existential dread is just a given, nobody has anything like politics, and a dead mother is always just a few pages, years, back.  

But how about the prose, and the killer images? Each story includes a new iconic So Cal spot-on brain-searing image. Swimming pools, sometimes old ones, define our region. The music on the car CD, in a story featuring a lousy sports coach, is The Minutemen, that genius if tragic LA-Pedro punk band. (D. Boon lives!) And everybody sees, remembers the little lizards, right? From childhood, called a blue belly? Here's the beginning of a story which somebody had to write, should have written. Mr. Real Deal wrote it.

Costello sees a lizard at the bottom of the pool. The sucker is dead, dead. Full fathom five, as they say. This lizard situation, on a Saturday, presents a major hassle. Costello stands barefoot on the diving board, bouncing a little, with an unlit Tareyton between his lips. Saturday, an extra layer of brightness, Saturday brightness, like God opening a window in the sky.

The man, a widower plumber, wants to float in his pool. The tiny reptile lies there, like his dead wife, in water and memory. Did I say he is a plumber, meaning a person who negotiates the delivery of water, of life, to our desert region?

There's more of this spare, spooky, darkly funny circumstance. And of images which stick with the reader from the beginning of each story, only to be developed, complicated, sometimes replaced with others, even more potent and urgent: the ubiquitous crows in the parking lot, Disneyland fireworks, that red brick backyard fence which demarcates so much in the tract home landscape,

The characters are versions of each other, but a startling variation on the theme. Yes, they are in the middle of things, developmentally, emotionally. The middle is not a good place to be if you are surrounded in nothing, or everything. The stories move chronologically through the life-cycle, and I don't mean an exercise bike. First, a high school basketball player confronts failure and easy brutality. The final story, a long, totally rewarding two-part son-father piece, ends with the old dude and the dead lizard, dead wife, over-eager kids, in his loneliness. The scene on the roof is remarkable. In between, there's the story about the one-off "screenwriter" driving to Riverside for drinks and a check from his uncle. And the guy who follows a girl to Bermuda. And the other guy, who is a personal assistant to a game show host who likes to share his embarrassment and shame.

But there's funny, too. Deadpan and wacky. A Ringo Starr impersonator, asshole bosses, lots of plumbing humor. (Who knew?)

And, throughout these long, richly-packed stories Gavin's solid and economical and stark prose, with idiom and pop references and just the right mix of gloomy self-assessment and, somehow, enduring hope for these hopeless characters. Here's the Young Guy who we meet throughout, in various personae but similar circumstances, here being self-pitying and ridiculous, but of course deserving pity when you think about it.

After she died, Matt, for his pain and loss, felt entitled to many rewards. He secretly anticipated, in no particular order, a moment of spiritual transcendence, the touch of a beautiful and understanding woman, and some kind of financial windfall. Instead, at thirty, he was broke and living at home. His sisters, the true stoics in the family, had both moved out and resumed their careers. The house was empty in the afternoons, so he sat by the pool and watched the water turn green. At night, when dad went to bed, he'd load up on his mom's leftover Vicodin and watch "The Office" over and over. That bit in the Christmas special, when Tim says he'll get a drink with David Brent, crushed him every time.

There's the pool from the final story. Same dad, or nearly. Dangerous sentimentality and self-delusion, the expectations of perhaps those over-constructed, under-imaginative tract home grid communities from the desert to the sea limiting, so very limiting, to so many. And yet, touchingly, everything their characters know, have, dream. Hard to tell sometimes what's dead and what's trying not to be. And so very rewarding, scary, exhilarating to try, with Mr. Gavin.

Middle Men, Jim Gavin, Simon and Schuster, 224 pgs, $23

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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