Middle Men by Jim Gavin | Book review
Gavin’s debut collection stars middle-class men adrift.
Before adding “author” and “New Yorker contributor” to his résumé, Jim Gavin held down some grittier jobs—gas-station manager, game-show assistant, toilet salesman—and these experiences seep into many of the stories and characters in his debut collection. While most are narrated by feckless young men in Southern California, the stories in Middle Men will still hit close to home for a wide swath of readers.
What elevates these tales above the foibles of manchildren is how intimately Gavin understands that state of being professionally and emotionally adrift. With impressive precision, he describes everything from being creatively unfulfilled to dodging landlords looking for back rent. Money—or the lack thereof—is almost a secondary character in Middle Men, from the Costco-brand lasagna the young protagonist of “Play the Man” is forced to eat (“a bottomless pit of goo that had lasted three days”) to the unspoken debts between the doomed couple in “Bermuda.”
The actual secondary characters, however, leave the most lasting impression, including the Hollywood game-show writer who takes smoke breaks in a leather gimp mask while waving to tourists on the lot (“Elephant Doors”), and the grizzled mentor taking a hapless salesman to a debased industry-only afternoon luau (“The Luau”). They provide consistently witty dialogue, and show varying degrees of ease with their lot in life, lending hope to the main characters. When Gavin adopts the perspective of a retired plumber in the final story, “Costello,” his writing achieves new insight, power and grace. One hopes he might widen his thematic lens next time, and yet it’s his steady focus on middle-class Americans’ quest for meaning that binds this collection together.