Friday, April 26, 2013

What We're Reading: New Fiction

Middle Men: Stories, by Jim Gavin

This is a wonderful debut collection of stories by Los Angeles local Jim Gavin. Author Marisa Silver wrote a laudatory review of Middle Men in the New York Times Book Review. I urge readers to look at her overview of Gavin’s themes and her perceptive understanding of the qualities of his style and art at

All of Gavin’s stories (with one exception) are set in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles. So for those of us living in the Los Angeles area and its environs, these stories have a particular resonance. We know these neighborhoods, we know the freeways and the streets, we know the look of the industrial areas and working class suburbs, the ranch houses and pools, and we know the look of the buildings and the moods of the sky. While all the characters in Gavin’s stories are from a certain socio-economic background, and the themes of his stories are of a piece with this world, this geographical continuity adds to the coherence of the collection as well. From story to story, we traverse a familiar landscape with the narrator. It should perhaps be noted that although we may think of Los Angeles as a culturally diverse city, all of Gavin’s characters, young and old, are white males, either working class or lower middle class males--those getting by in routine or demeaning jobs and trying to find their place on the ladder of middle class respectability. It is a pursuit that they sometimes daydream about bypassing by getting the big break and achieving stardom and fame, an alluring cultural myth that seems to have a direct relationship to the anomie and economic frustration we witness. The younger characters we meet are directionless and often clueless. They pursue vague aspirations of work and love in a state of social bewilderment.

The characters of Gavin’s stories are not likely the sort that would be his readers. His readers are those of us who are, or imagine ourselves to be, someplace higher in the social order, maybe those of us who imagine ourselves more sophisticated and less feckless than his protagonists, people on whom we might look with more condescension than sympathy. The triumph of Middle Men is that Gavin is able to make these readers care about his characters and sense in their plight and uncertainty a feeling that they too share about the future, to experience more nakedly a bewilderment that is their own. The secondary characters who have achieved fame and success in these stories seem to be nuttier the higher they have risen, like the divorced game show host we meet in “Elephant Doors” who has visitation rights for his dog, or the software executive in “Bewildered Decisions in Times of Mercantile Terror” who speaks in a business argot that will leave you roaring with laughter. That’s the ameliorating pleasure of this sometimes dark collection of stories: There is wit here, yes, but the stories are animated by a keen sense of the absurd, and rather than a wry cerebral smile at the irony of things, your laughter is more likely to come from the gut. The target of these stories is the absurdity, selfishness and self-absorption of the system and those who run it. Gavin’s characters may not be heroes, or even the salt of the earth, but what seems their constitutional inability to adapt to the requirements of this world in order to find their place is in its way a consolation and reassurance for us all. The legions of the alienated and disaffected are growing. The gestures of defiance for now are small, but you can’t help feel they might soon become larger. It does not seem that Gavin’s work is about pity or resignation. There is a fire here, and it will be exciting to see what comes next.

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