“Two years ago,” says Sean, the young narrator of “Illuminati,” one of the half-dozen stories in Jim Gavin’s excellent new collection, “Middle Men,” “all my dumb ideas and tenuous connections came together. I sold a screenplay to a finance company that was working with a production company that was developing a project for a pair of comedians who had appeared in commercials for a popular men’s body wash that wanted to distinguish their brand by underwriting a feature film in which the body wash somehow played a crucial role in the plot.”
Sean got a tidy sum for the script — a sum which, according to his calculations at the time, “would last forever.” But after things fell apart due to a variety of factors beyond his control, Sean laments, “Nothing always happens. The literature of Hollywood is depressingly consistent on this point.”
While it’s only partially about Hollywood, “Middle Men” could be another entry in this literature, as it is very much about men for whom nothing happens — albeit often in surprising, entertaining ways. A couple of these men, including Sean, are aspiring creative types. Others — a young, semi-talented basketball player who is somehow already washed up, a 30-year-old who is shocked to find he is following his father into his line of work as a toilet salesman — are not. Gavin’s characters tend to be either unsure about who or what they’re supposed to be or are at least somewhat convinced they can become something they can’t.
Most of “Middle Men” takes place amid the relentless sunny optimism of Southern California (the stories are littered with Del Taco wrappers), and all of it is buoyed by Gavin’s piquant, extremely entertaining language. His writing delivers jab after jab, the hilarious and the poignant mingling in compelling ways. “It was a happy time and I couldn’t wait for it to end,” notes one character as he recounts being 23 and “living with too many friends in Echo Park.” In another tale, Gavin describes an aspiring stand-up comedian who is “waiting for something to click. . . . The words coming out of his mouth seemed like they could’ve been coming out of anyone’s mouth. He was desperate to become who he was, to not care what others were thinking, to dissolve the world around him.”
Gavin also has a way of quickly and vividly drawing the minor characters who drift in and out of his stories: In describing a “famously mediocre local comic” who has carved out a job running a lottery that determines which amateur stand-up comics get two-minute sets at a major comedy club, he writes, “Despite his pleasant demeanor, Thorpe was suffering in a hell of his own making; he had cashed in his delusions and bought a sad little fiefdom.” Elsewhere: “Alcohol, for Ray, was a kind of charm, allowing him to barge through doors and announce his place in the world. Over the years he had diligently boozed and golfed his way to the top.”
Overall, Gavin’s writing is eminently readable and reminiscent of some of Tom Perrotta’s best work. But whether a reader will admire “Middle Men” probably depends on an appetite for stories that are all set in the same place and largely involve men trying to “figure stuff out.” That’s not a fatal flaw, but simply an acknowledgment that “Middle Men,” by design, covers a limited range of characters and issues. What it does cover, however, it covers wonderfully.
Jesse Singal is a contributing writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast and a graduate student at Princeton University. He can be reached at jesse.r.singal