The divine and the base is one popular answer — from Ancient Greek thought to the doctrine of original sin and beyond. The middling, mostly male characters of Middle Men, the debut story collection from Los Angeles writer Jim Gavin, are just so situated. But the list of poles they find themselves between goes farther. They’re between God and beast, yes, but also between triumph and defeat, between socio-economic classes, between paychecks, between their own irreconcilable urges, between each other.
In telling these stories, Gavin presents a totally different kind of middle-ness: the sharp grace of narratives poised between humor and sentimentality. The stories in Middle Men are raucously funny, but never cheaply so. The collection begins with a coming-of-age story called “Play the Man.” The story opens with an uproarious account of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, somehow told reverently despite its sacrilege:
They tried to set him on fire, but his flesh would not be consumed. They pierced his heart with a sword, but a dove issued from his chest. The afternoon dragged on like that, miracle after miracle, until they finally cut off his balls, or fed him to the Sarlacc pit monster, or whatever.
All this is to explain the words on the gymnasium wall at St. Polycarp High School, a divine whisper: “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.”
At St. Polycarp High, the story of a so-so highschool basketball player unfolds: he transfers schools, gets a job at Walmart, and watches his family and idealized future crumble as he accepts his lust-filled, earthly station. As with the collection as a whole, the story’s profound comic sense arises from Gavin’s knack for unveiling the divine amidst the mundane. “I focused all my attention on the local news anchor,” the young protagonist confesses at the story’s end:
her lips and the curve of her neck. I felt something rising in me, a sense of life maybe, this life, here, in a motel by the sea, and just like that my Gnostic phase was over. I jerked off three times in an hour. Ad majorem Dei gloriam.
From the architecture of the whole collection down to this careful succession of sentences, the profane becomes the profound, and the result is at once hysterical and sobering.
Middle Men predominately deals with the financial and existential struggles of young Californian men, but this thematic and geographic milieu encompasses a variety of stories and structures. In “Bewildered Decisions in Times of Mercantile Terror,” we see the contrast and communion between an unemployed, aspiring inventor and his dejected white-collar cousin. “Elephant Doors” recounts the tragicomic tribulations of a failing stand-up comedian, whose groping toward mediocrity is thrown into relief by the absurd success of a neurotic trivia show. Both the range and coherence of vision of Middle Men distinguishes it as a debut.
Yet, for all its masterful strokes, Middle Men has its amateurish missteps. Gavin’s prose is so tightly paced and evocative that the moments when he gets lazy stand out all the more. This is the case, for example, in “Bewildered Decisions,” when Gavin writes, “She closed her office door, thinking she was about to cry. But she didn’t. Something rattled in her chest, but she didn’t cry.” The same is true at the level of narrative structure. Gavin intelligently thwarts tropes of the American realist short story; he often cleverly interrupts what seems ready to become the quiet climax of a sudden epiphany with something apparently too loud and abrupt, but in fact just right. So when he resorts to structures that seem defaulted to rather than chosen — like the stilted and perfunctory exposition that opens “The Luau” — the reader is taken aback and disappointed.
And then there is an aspect of Middle Men that might be a flaw or might be genius. Many of Gavin’s narrators blur into their stories and into one another. Their particular qualities wash into the harsh locale of Middle Men’s California, which is of course a stand-in for anywhere people reach and fall. Except for a few particularly vivid moments, it becomes difficult to remember the specific characters and tensions of each story.
Is this blending an imperfection? Maybe. Perhaps, in the future, Gavin will learn to give more individual integrity to each story. Or maybe this deep-seated imbalance is not an imbalance at all, but instead is the key to Gavin’s vision. It is a vision of something essential and even sublime in the middle of things, when the particular fades into the archetypal.