By Oscar Villalon
What you need to know about “Middle Men,” Jim Gavin’s collection of humorous yet stinging stories, is that it’s the sort of book you wish people who normally don’t read would. Here’s a work-a-day, unglamorous world, mostly set in Los Angeles’s failing middle class, that so many people know all too well. Yet, until now, we haven’t seen the experiences of its inhabitants transformed into something so meaningful and arresting.
There’s nothing fussy about these comic tales of young men and women running head on into an unimpeachable fact: economic uncertainty and personal dissatisfaction may well be the defining traits of their lives. As for the older-that is to say, middle-aged or senior-characters in “Middle Men,” they’re unsettling examples of what the future holds. Whether still toiling away, or at ease in their success, none of these elders can be said to have their lives together. There’s a hole in their existence that things such as work or ambition or family cannot entirely fill.
The signs that life may not be at all what had been hoped for come early. In “Play the Man,” a once-promising Long Beach basketball prospect is relegated to playing for a high school team whose coach doesn’t really know how to coach and whose players don’t really care if they win. “Bermuda” is the story of a young man who used to slum in Echo Park reminiscing about the boyish woman who may have been his true love: an aloof musician ten years his senior, she’s nonetheless a woman laboring under a resignation beyond her years. And in the wonderfully titled “Bewildered Decisions in Mercantile Terror,” a young San Francisco woman making a go of it in the new economy realizes she may be as hopelessly self-destructive as the bi-polar cousin she has long been helping who lives on the other side of the Bay.
Even Hollywood’s dream factory can’t sustain illusions of better days. In “Elephant Doors,” a production assistant gets an eyeful of the utterly sad and vapid life of his boss, a game show host. It’s a sour insight chased with the bitter epiphany that his true passion-stand-up comedy-doesn’t meet his needs either.
The collection’s two-part title story shows that American bedrock values of hard work and family don’t exactly provide total comfort. The men here are salt-of-the-earth types living in Anaheim and Victorville, yet they, too, know somehow, somesay they’ve missed something. And though it makes the son of one of the characters sad that his father, as Gavin writes, “who never complained about anything, might have dreamed about doing something else with his life besides selling toilets,” the son also envies his father’s ability to move beyond his old dreams. “He belonged to this world,” the young man notes, “day after day.” Achieving that sort of clarity, it would seem, is the first step toward figuring out the rest of your life. It is to “Middle Men’s” great credit that these stories entertain us all the way toward this sobering realization.
Oscar Villalon is managing editor of the West Coast literary journal, "Zzyva."