a subtle arc to Jim Gavin’s first book, "Middle
Men" (Simon & Schuster; $23). Gathering seven
stories largely set in Southern California, it opens
with a high school basketball player and ends with Marty
Costello, a plumbing supply salesman who "averages
50,000 miles per year, vast territories, circles of
latitude, Inglewood to Barstow, sailing across SoCal,
all day every day."
between, we meet men of different ages, from Costello’s
adult son Matt, also trying to make it in the plumbing
supply business, to the 23-year-old protagonist of
"Bermuda," who follows a girl who doesn’t
love him partway across the world.
collection moves from apprentice to journeyman to
master," Gavin explains, sitting in his Culver City
apartment, sipping a beer in the thin light of a winter
afternoon. "My hope is that the stories build on
each other. I felt no compulsion to make that explicit,
but it helped me see the structure of the book."
36, Gavin is not unlike many of his characters: a former
high school basketballer who did his own stint in
plumbing sales. Born in Long Beach and raised in Orange,
he is a product of the same communities, the same
environments, with their tract houses and freeway
to my advantage that I have a lousy imagination,"
he jokes, cracking a loose grin amid a few days’
growth of beard. He’s a bit uneasy, not completely
comfortable talking about his writing, but at the same
time wholly genuine, wearing jeans and a shapeless
always liked writers," he continues, "who can
capture the texture of a place: which freeway, which
drive-through restaurant. You many not know the exact
building, but you know what it means to the character. I
want to get that right."
Gavin, the roots of "Middle Men" go back
nearly a decade, to a UCLA Extension workshop he took
with novelist and short-story writer Lou Mathews in
some extent, Gavin had already begun to zero in on
writing as a way of living; as an undergraduate at
Loyola Marymount, he majored in English — "kind
of by default," he acknowledges — and after
graduation, he worked for a couple of years on the
sports desk of the Orange County Register. It was in
Mathews’ class, however, that he began to write
fiction, and it was with Mathews’ encouragement that
he applied for a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford
big difference," he says, "was that when I
started class with Lou, it was the first time I had ever
written about my life." In part, he suggests,
tongue not entirely in cheek, that he "wanted to
write something that didn’t require research."
But more to the point, he started thinking about his
experiences as material.
plumbing stuff," he recalls, "I would tell
people about it at the pub, and they’d say, ‘Why don’t
you write about that?’ I began to see that I was stuck
with myself, that these were the stories I had. I’ll
probably branch out in the future, but I needed to write
autobiographical aspects of "Middle Men" may
prompt the question of why Gavin chose to work in
fiction, but in his mind there was never any doubt.
is the thing I love most," he says, "and even
if it’s autobiographical, I can shape it in a way,
construct the story to get at something I couldn’t do
in nonfiction, a different kind of truth."
an example, he cites "Play the Man" — the
high school basketball story — which blurs the line
between memory and imagination, between what happened
and what never did. The narrator, Gavin acknowledges, is
him, a kid who dreams of stardom even as he knows that
dream will not come true. And yet, his foil, a teammate
named Tully, is a creation, a character who "tells
the truth and has no illusions; he sees exactly where he’s
going all the time."
is often unsympathetic, even antagonistic, but his
presence sets up an essential tension, a resistance for
the narrator to push against. "Every story,"
Gavin notes, "has one thing that’s invented, and
it changes everything. That, for me, is the joy."
is, of course, another joy to "Middle Men,"
which is its portrait of Southern California as neither
glamorous nor mythic but instead defined by what D.J.
Waldie has called "sacred ordinariness." This
is both the most obvious thing in the world and utterly
refreshing, given all the imposed meanings, the cliches
and stereotypes, that make it so difficult to see this
place for what it is.
Los Angeles stands blessedly outside Hollywood; the one
story with an industry angle, "Elephant
Doors," focuses on a production assistant (a job
Gavin also had). Otherwise, the characters here are
adrift, wrestling with loss (the death of a wife or
mother), unsure of where they’re going or who they
that regard, Gavin says, the stories represent "the
culmination of their screw-ups" — yet if that
sounds dismal, or even tragic, the key to the book is
their ability to persevere.
if to make the point explicit, Gavin remembers high
school, when he knew an older boy who one day went into
the alley behind the K-Mart where he worked and shot
himself. Gavin too worked at K-Mart (although a
different one), and he and the dead boy looked enough
alike to be mistaken for relatives.
difference, Gavin has come to realize, is that "I
was too dumb; I retained some sense of hope" —
which is what marks his characters, as well. From that
high school basketball player to Marty Costello,
widowed, still driving the freeways, meaning accrues in
the smallest moments, which is true for every one.
my characters," Gavin says, "are waiting for
something they think will save them, but it never
arrives. None of them get what they want. And yet, they
do end up with some sort of understanding. Their
delusions save them. The same was true of me."