(Simon & Schuster, 2013)
Jim Gavin’s Middle Men is a fantastic book for any number of reasons, not least of which is its genesis story (he’s one of those plucked-from-the-slush-at-the-New-Yorker genesis stories that are both maddening but glorious, evidence that the unlikely is always worth believing in). Genesis stories, however, are never enough; and fortunately Gavin’s collection has other things going for it—bigger things, actually, things which make tapping the name Jim Gavin into the Notes section of your iPhone a probably smart move.
Probably wise to address a critical matter up front: Middle Men is a book that I believe will offer unique satisfactions and glories to its male audience. I say that with no intention of sexism: there’s frankly a sphincter-tightening aspect to these stories that is, I believe, ultimately grounded in certain circumstances of the experience being a male. Yet, this is certainly not to say that men should be the only ones to read this.
The collection opens with “Play the Man,” a story in which our first-person narrator, Pat, tells the story about the moment his high school basketball career stalled out. A failure like that is bad enough, but compounding things is that Pat is the first in his family to realize the dream he—and they—have been so desperately working for (forsaking certain joys and comforts for his future career) is no longer tenable. The career-stalling begins when Pat transfers from his hoops-powerhouse private school to St. Polycarp (in southern California, where all the stories of Middle Men are set) and learns, basically, what life is like when dreams and hope fail. That’s maybe too brutal a chop-job on a truly gorgeous story, but it holds nevertheless.
That idea—what life is like when the dream or hope fails—is the animating spirit of every story in the collection, hence the sphincter-loosening. Full disclosure: I’m a youngish man, a recent father, and I’m lucky enough to have financial and employment stability, and what’s more, I basically believe those facts to be dependable. I don’t lose much sleep to fears of everything falling apart, mostly because, day to day, it does not. And yet, on reading Middle Men, that’s basically all I could think of—the falling apart. These stories track the crumbling, the erosion, the sudden loss not of cabin pressure but of the fluidity we move through. In each of these stories, the characters find themselves, to some degree, like a boat run aground on a sand ledge.
The stories here that stick hardest—“Play the Man,” which begins the collection, and “Middle Men,” which closes it—are symphonic triumphs, gut-wrenchers of male life. “Middle Men” is divided into two parts: the first involving young college-grad Matt Costello, the second his father, Marty Costello. The story’s knife is exposed in the first half, as Matt attempts to put his life in some order using the schematics his father’s used—a career in shit (literally: plumbing, specifically, being a sales rep)—but the knife fully extends into the reader’s abdomen as Marty Costello’s story opens up. Marty’s trying—despite multiple mortgages, a dead wife, a job that demands a level of greasy salesmanship and authentic close-the-deal grit—to get by, to just make do. He’s up for an annual award through his job, and there’s a dead lizard stuck to the bottom of his pool out back, his wife is dead, and his kids want to draw him out and make him more social; but what Marty most wants is watching ballgames at home and drinking soda straight from the two-liter bottle: the spoils of a kids-are-gone late-adulthood
Evening comes. The house is dark. Costello drives his Pontiac Grand Am one block, parks in a cul-de-sac, and walks back to the house, slipping in through the side gate. Smoke and mirrors, to make the Rochas think he’s out with the kids. The Rochas always knock a second time, asking again if he wants to come over.
What’s fascinating about this tiny moment is the way it evades judgment: it’s neither bad nor good that Marty wants to be alone to watch the ballgame in peace. It’s not presented as anything like sad or pathetic that he wishes to evade his neighbors’s kindliness. It’s just the sort of glorious this-is-as-it-is-nessthat Middle Men traffics in at its best. Sure, Marty would probably rather have his wife with him (even if that’d force him to have to sneak the Tareytons; something he no longer has to do, given the solitude), would rather the house be paid off, the backyard cleaned up, but given these givens, Marty simply wants a game in peace, some snacks, some solitude.
The misses in Middle Men are those stories in which the desperation of the men feels forced, or at least circumstantial: Adam in “Elephant Doors,” interning for Max Lavoy (a clear Alex Trebek stand-in) and trying to perfect an abysmal stand-up comedy act/career, goes through similar depressing scenarios that befall the characters in all the stories, but somehow you feel less bad for him—his entitlement is not enough overcome. But then there’s “Bermuda,” in which a similar young guy, Brian, goes to Bermuda to chase a girl he clearly should not, and that story is everything excellent that “Elephant Doors” just misses becoming. But please note: it’s not that any of these stories are bad: the sentences throughout sing and will catch you, grabbing laughs one page and making your stomach hurt from feeling like you’ve just been drop-kicked on the next. It’s almost not even fair to knock the stories that don’t work as well here, simply because they’d be stand-outs in other collections—but, given Gavin’s powers in the best stories in Middle Men, you get used to a sort of glory and mastery, and feel, a bit like these poor men, let down when you’re not given what you’ve been led to believe you will. At which point, of course, you realize how frighteningly similar you are to these poor men, these poor getting-there guys in their hope and futility.