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.
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.
N. West - Just because
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.