It sometimes seems the worst compliment one can give a book is that it is funny. We may worry a literary work will be regarded as a comedic romp, a designation that could doom deeply serious and important books to remain irrelevant. Smart readers know better, of course. We see the significance of comedic romps by Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Gary Shteyngart, and Dorothy Parker. The emotional and philosophical heft is right there with the humor, and they cannot be separated even if we wanted to.
On the evidence in his often-hilarious short story collection Middle Men, Jim Gavin stakes out a place among writers known for their wit as well as the more serious assertions of their works. The California-set stories etch out different instances of American failure, but they do so without a single note of bitterness or pandering. One might expect a story collection about failure to have characters wallowing in their own self-loathing, or for the humor, to derive from the disjunction between these characters’ sense of themselves and readers’ feelings of their own superiority. Gavin’s stories transcend all that.
Nothing about Middle Men smacks of broad, formulaic gags, and it is worth exploring how Gavin achieves such a fine balance between humor and pathos. First, the stories deftly manage to amuse while depicting the soul-crushing defeats of men at these stories’ centers. Gavin achieves this balance, in part, by masterful characterization that helps us know these men deeply. Like most of us living through the tail end of the twentieth century and the first two decades of the twenty-first, the titular men are painfully aware of their shortcomings. All of them know (or strongly suspect) they are failures. They diagnose themselves, drawing from knowledge earned through bitter experience or, more often, through unsparing self-examination.
Take, for instance, Matt Costello, the early-twenties protagonist in the first of two connected stories comprising a quarter of the collection, titled “Middle Men Part I: The Luau” and “Part II: Costello.” After his mother’s death, Matt expected to find stability:
Several of his closest friends had lost their moms to cancer, so he knew the drill. This happened to everybody sooner or later, and he marveled at the quiet and dignified way his friends had moved on with their lives. He looked forward to doing the same, earning his credentials as a stoic and joining their club, but when his mom died, he failed to live up to their example.
Matt’s inability to reach that quiet and dignified station in life, that brand of maturity, troubles him. He seeks solace in her leftover pain meds and in binge-watching complete seasons of television shows on DVD. His awareness of the roots of failings does not allow him to avoid them.
Matt’s and the other men’s failures to reach even modest goals creates strong undertow of sorrow in these stories. Matt does not fail because he is fooling himself about what he can accomplish, and he is not failing because he is a useless loser.
He is unable to achieve his dignified stability by way of becoming a small-time plumbing supply salesman because he is trying out the career for the wrong reasons. The failures of Matt and the other men result from being who they are.
It may be more accurate to say the subject of the book is anxiety about failure more than the act of failing itself. The stories expertly chronicle the erosion of the men’s nerve while striving for their goals. One narrator wants to play on a winning prep-school basketball squad in order to earn an athletic scholarship to college; he meets with ignoble failure another wants to give up his early-twenties bachelorhood and mature quickly in order to be a suitable partner for an older woman. She leaves for Bermuda and will not return. In these stories and others in the collection, Gavin demonstrates a keen ear for how men talk to themselves about themselves as their defeats grow...