Middle Men: Stories

Image of Middle Men: Stories
Release Date: 
February 19, 2013
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

“Readers will be moved, amused, and impressed by these stories.”

Common wisdom would have you believe that “Big, Two-Hearted River” is the best short story ever written. But it’s not.

Nor is “The Lottery,” or “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or even “The Gift of the Magi,” to say nothing of “The Necklace.”

No, the best short story ever written is “Elephant Doors,” by Jim Gavin, a young writer who has just produced his first collection of short fiction.

That collection, Middle Men, contains just six stories, each of which could so easily have ended up being yet another in a long line of Salinger ripoffs, with each protagonist a Holden Caulfield variant. And yet somehow Mr. Gavin manages to imbue his stories with characteristics all their own, his characters with flesh and blood, and his writing style with a combination of mad and sad that sets him firmly in front of the pack.

Which is not to say that there is not some slight truth in the Caulfield comparison. All the guys in all his stories—whether they end up being named Tully or Adam or Matt—have something kind of Holdenish about them. Each dreams a dream, wants what he wants, criticizes the world he occupies, and/or works marginally in some marginal way or not at all. Some sell toilets, others spend their days in the library. Still others deliver Meals on Wheels, where they come into contact with their elderly clients:

“Maria kept the curtains closed, even in July, and it was dark and stuffy inside. I followed her through the living room. Everything was covered in dust. On one wall there was a framed black-and-white photograph of Maria Recoba and her late husband, Gabriel. The photo, taken fifty years ago in Buenos Aires, captured the aristocratic bearing that was still noticeable in Maria, even when she was slicing her meat loaf with a plastic knife and watching game shows. She told me the first day I met her that she wanted to hurry up and die so she could be with Gabriel again. They didn’t have any children. She wore the same dress every time I saw her. She was haunting her own house.”

That’s the other thing about these stories: the gorgeous nature of the writing itself. The simplicity of it, its apparent ease, with the killer twist of phrase, like the self-haunting above, that informs the reader so easily about so much.

It’s like the meal that five-star chefs inevitably identify as the very best: the finest, purest ingredients, cooked gently, tampered with as little as possible, presented beautifully on the plate.

Sounds simple, but it’s hard to achieve.

Like a meal, these stories appeal at once to all the senses, leaving the reader remarkably sated.

Perhaps because of the secret ingredient shared by each story in turn: that dollop of self-doubt peeking around the corners of the pages.

The feet of each of the protagonists—young, athletic, somewhat entitled men all—are balanced between firm ground and oozing La Brea tar, all because of the notion, the secret or open secret (depending upon the story) that the guy for all his talent, charm and potential is quite simply, at his core, a complete fuck up. Perhaps that is the reason why these stories are so at home in their California locales, as they are fittingly placed upon fault lines.

Back to “Elephant Doors,” the story in which the hot tar seems to flow under every sidewalk. Where other stories show the differences between the genders, the races and the generations, “Doors” explores the all-pervasive differences between those who are deemed successes and those seen as failures, the pecking order in which we all live.

To say anything about the plot is to give away too much. Suffice to note that Mr. Gavin, in crafting the tale, called upon his time spent working as a production assistant for the game show Jeopardy! and apparently Jeopardy! is a microcosm for all existence.

Witness this moment:

“After so many years of success, taking in millions for the studio, the show had the authority to budget certain outrageous luxuries, like a golf cart made up to look like a black Mercedes-Benz. Adam now had access to the Benz and he used it to ferry his precious cargo through a light drizzle. Other golf carts, less deluxe, buzzed up and down the narrow lanes between sound stages. He received honks of recognition from studio messengers, production assistants, and other members of the squire class. Then he passed one guy who was on foot. Adam had once temped with this guy at another production company on the lot. Adam couldn’t remember his name, but he saw that he still wore a red temp badge. Hence the walking—temps, for insurance reasons, couldn’t drive the golf carts. The guy waved, but Adam pretended not to see him.”

Readers will be enthralled by “Elephant Doors,” and by other stories in Middle Men, notably “Illuminati” and especially “Costello,” which was actually accepted unsolicited and published in the New Yorker.

Readers will be moved, amused, and impressed by these stories. And you will come away knowing more about the Thirty Years’ War than you ever dreamed possible.