Friday, March 15, 2013

Jim Gavin's "Middle Men": Book Review

When I read Jim Gavin’s "Costello" in the New Yorker, I recognized my father, my city, and his stoicism. Gavin and I share the same ethnic, religious, and class background, as well as a native Southern Californian affiliation. Gavin and I attended the same Catholic college as English majors, if fifteen years apart. As I type this, I work within sight of the Holiday Inn near the Long Beach Airport, both a few minutes’ walk away. That annoyingly circular venue opens "The Luau," a companion piece to "Costello" that concludes as a diptych Middle Men, Gavin’s debut 2013 story collection portraying terrain and people he and I know well.

I preface my article with this to show how closely I find mirrored Gavin's sensibility in my own reactions. As greater L.A. is a locale often stereotyped (a stand-up comic two months in the city is cited; the gist of his routine reduces to: 1) a lot of phonies, 2) what about that traffic), it's instructive to see a local's take. What has not been discussed in the positive reviews and author profiles promoting Middle Man is the Irish Catholic sensibility of Gavin’s Californians, however diminished by assimilation and distance. 

Gavin's background (including a stint assisting Jeopardy as well as working for a plumbing firm and other odd sales jobs presumably not the usual background for a Stegner Fellow at Stanford) enables him to present "middle men" striving to get by or get ahead as equals, but never from a position of condescension, parody, or romanticism. Gavin provides an appropriate colophon from James Joyce's Ulysses: “Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves." Gavin depicts ordinary folks, like Bloom or Stephen, Molly or citizens, some Irish once-removed at least, in another metropolis, pursuing their feckless dreams or tangled business. And as with Scylla and Charybdis, collisions and close calls with rivals frequently loom.

"Play the Man" opens with Catholic high school locales I could pinpoint (even if names are changed) to show a teenaged basketball player's struggle in South Orange County and then Long Beach (their regional and class difference is apparent if subtly marked). "The coaches described me as 'heady' and 'deceptively quick,' both of which meant I was 'white.'" Nearly all of his protagonists are Irish Catholic, although nearly all live in the Southern California; they appear deracinated and torn from any ancestral solidarity with their motherland. Parishes (names seem accurate here) endure as markers, but there's no diffident Jesuit or lesson-toting nun to comment on moral conundrums. No theological intrusions, no cassocked wise guys, no crones with novenas. It's as if the wry Catholic sensibility of a master storyteller such as J.F. Powers half a century and more ago has diminished. So, what ethnically or culturally or even spiritually distinguishes the pale, freckled Nora (the one character who connects with Ireland by her visits) from the Irish-emigrant barkeep--beyond accents--stands out very little in today's San Francisco.

For Brian, narrating "Bermuda," an "Araby"-type of longing endures in musician-boho Echo Park, along with familiar Los Feliz faux-Spanish gothic architecture surviving from the heyday of James M. Cain. A fellow bohemian is not a star, but "cosmic debris," as all angle on the make.  Karen takes the bus there to stay at the decrepit home of an aging Argentinian selling off her piano. But she is no Gloria Swanson on Sunset Boulevard. Neither is Karen Barbara Stanwyck enticing Fred MacMurray into any Double Indemnity.  Brian meets her at the house, ready to buy the old woman’s piano: “’Are you a nurse or something?’ ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m nobody.’ ‘I didn’t know how to respond to this statement. She didn’t say it offhand; she seemed to mean it. In Los Angeles this was a rare thing to confess.’” Like many in this story collection, Karen lacks roots.

While in a landscape far from Dublin’s streets for Scylla and Charybdis, for Brian, an immersion into a similar confusion of intersection and misdirection ensues. He’s a lovelorn protagonist wandering across another ocean in search of his soon-distant lover Karen. But, on his limited budget, the "twin beasts of reality: logic and finance" intrude. Gavin out of this mismatched tale of romance creates a welcome detour, a labyrinth via a pursuit to balmy but pricy Hamilton, Bermuda. There Brian chases down Karen, the mismatched love interest (victim of a "platonic gangbang" as always the only female among a male crowd), who beckons from another lotus land, where her swain will pursue her to diminishing returns.

The "longest running quiz show in television history," with an antagonist obsessed with Walloon history (who is "not" Alex Trebek), enlivens the setting for a new production assistant: Adam Cullen, "Gaelic for 'drunk'"--as he tries to introduce himself on the studio set. His delivery fumbles, and his endeavor to succeed at an open-mike comedy club receives merciless and cruelly funny recital. Gavin's in his (former) element here in "Elephant Doors" to witty, satirical effect. A cow's udder is made pinker by a stagehand: "Like everyone else who had made it on to the lot, the cow seemed willing to put up with anything." As Max, the host, takes Adam down to the Valley's "stucco ranch homes," the star cringes; Adam bristles: he grew up in such a place.

The next story, "Illuminati," shows Sean, who's moved up from Adam's status in Hollywood, but whose screenplay sale failed to land him success. He endures his uncle's schtick. "Alcohol, for Ray, was a kind of a charm, allowing him to barge through doors and announce his place in the world." This story's more of a sketch, and shorter. Still, the range and control Gavin demonstrates attests to his ear, his patience, and his craft. His skill finds its surest expression in longer stories: these manage to suggest more than they describe.

Nora Sullivan has a screen saver with her photo taken at the Cliffs of Moher. Relocated to the Inner Richmond district of San Francisco, she despises its posing progressives (they don't donate to causes but they "identify" with them) among the "corduroy mafia." However, with a lucrative job selling software, she can visit Ireland, “paying top dollar to recapture the glory of her family’s destitution. It was her bizarro way of establishing legitimacy, like some derelict countess tracing her bloodline to an ancient king.” So reasons her mooching cousin from their native Huntington Beach in Orange County. Flunking out of Cal a decade earlier, he bums around Berkeley. “Bobby didn’t understand why someone born and raised in Southern California cares so much about a wet, miserable country she had no connection to, but she always came back from her trips seeming refreshed, like she had gone home,” he admits. 

Bobby chats with the Irish émigré who staffs the local pub. “Where in Ireland are you from?” He doesn’t get far. “A small place. You’ve never heard of it.’ But she knows Nora. She always plays “Fairytale of New York,” the Pogues song, on the jukebox. The bartender prefers hosting Beatles night for a covers band rather than U2, all the same. Nora flies down for a trade show in L.A. There, as she hates the tapas bar set-up, she flees for the street. "Part of her was hoping to get mugged--a major trauma would simplify everything." Her relationship, speaking of "platonic," with hapless Bobby comprises the bulk of the lengthy story alternating between the two cousins’ perspectives as "Bewildered Decisions in Mercantile Terror."

While this story (like its baggier title) lagged more than others in its sprawl and doubled point-of-view, it conveys the Silicon Valley-Bay Area start-up blather in managerial-speak relentlessly. Listen to Dave, her boss: “I know things are a little…right now. But still. We need confirmation on how our brand is being restructured. And if we’re serious about sustaining an effective solution environment, then we need to create a strategy for platform leveraging that prioritizes integration. That’s the reality. “ Meanwhile, she remains confused whether she is staying on or not. “I thought I was moving to a liaison role with sales.” 

Her efforts to assist feckless Bobby and her own frustration with the gap between her privileged position and her lack of fulfillment in its duties deepen her malaise. As a counter to the start-up setting, pumped up with casual but sneering pomp from managers from “third-tier MBA programs,” this story depicts Nora as an Irish American in California trying to grasp her cultural sustenance. A fragile success despite a history of mediocrity and a junior college degree, Nora with her six-figure salary fails to sustain her soul.  Brief Irish memories encourage her, if in typically self-deprecating fashion. Tasked by her manager with delivering meager sales prospects to Los Angeles, as the firm undergoes “restructuring,” she reflects on this “suicide mission.” “Nora, who had always taken great comfort in the endless sorrow of Irish history, thought of De Valera sending Michael Collins to sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty.” She (as with many in these stories) scarfs down Del Taco. The cultural difference is that she puts down her BlackBerry to pick up Liam O'Flaherty's grim narrative of the Great Hunger, re-reading his harrowing novel Famine.

The paired stories of son Matt in "The Luau" and his father Marty for (what was justly accepted by the New Yorker [12-6-10] unsolicited) "Costello" conclude the collection. I drive the same "blind and savage freeway" daily between my home north of downtown L.A. and where I teach in Long Beach, so the very familiar sights and sounds resonate for me in paved or dusty "landscapes bright, hazy, and inscrutable" in industrial sprawl and the "quilted" patterns of settlement from body shops, futon stores, and strip malls. Matt and Marty will differ on how they rise to the challenge of getting suppliers to take orders, and pay for them, in the kind of blue-collar behavior and sales-grinding patter that wears men down. Of one plumbing fixture outlet at the end of a long drive in a grimy, industrial, East-of-L.A. suburb: "They've been going out of business for twenty-five years," Marty reflects.

That last story shows a jauntier, more allusive sensibility as a tribute to an Everyman. The tone shifts noticeably, and suggests hope for the elder Costello. Marty compares himself to a navigator; like Joyce’s figures where the Liffey meets the sea, Marty stays fascinated by the "watery places of the world." However, he's never been to Catalina Island, twenty-three miles off of Long Beach. Like many in this insular, congested, dirty, and sunny terrain, Marty wonders what keeps him here, and makes him face another day on the freeway. Gavin's driven the same roads and done the same tasks, and his debut dramatizes, in odd or mundane circumstances, the surprises that quiet epiphanies can present to the attentive wanderer. (Amazon US 1-15-13 in shorter and altered form; altered and condensed differently again 2-11-13 for PopMatters)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. As a diehard Northeasterner,I have never understood California. We have a daughter in O.C. with two children, I think she would leave Cali, but for her job. Her commute is unimaginable to us, but she takes it in stride.
Cali has places of breathtaking beauty and everyone is friendly, but when we are there, I find myself missing NY cabbies and rude waiters.
There is something so stubbornly democratic and may I say bland, about the atmosphere,that seems sort of surreal to an Easterner. It's as if people go there to re-invent themselves,but they're all working from the same blueprint.
I am in hope that the book you have reviewed will explain this or show me a way to understand my daughter's adopted state.


John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Sophie, my younger son may/may not go Back East (CT or NY?) as he longs, depending on financial aid offers for college next fall, but I was reflecting on the lure that that region has for him and my wife, whereas for me, it's more of a divide between somewhere cooler and more Irish in climate, and the smoggy sprawl Gavin and I find ourselves born and raised in. His characters rarely let the tension come to the surface, with one exception tellingly called Nora from S.F.

I imagine the surreal nature of a sky that visitors often notice as cobalt and playing oddly off of the light (and attracting artists and filmmakers) and the bland blueprint (everyone does seem to be a screenwriter or worse, an aspiring stand-up, as Gavin's "Elephant Doors" story evokes all too well) leaves its mark on many, natives as well as everyone else who keeps coming here (damn traffic! and I hate reading about L.A. from transplants even as this is inevitable and instructive, sometimes at least) to peddle their dreams and re-inventing themselves.

I would never have moved here if I was born somewhere else. That may give you a clue as to who does wind up here--even as opposed to the more cohesive and more congenial S.F. For Irish Americans, SoCal is one of the most anonymous regions I can imagine to disappear into and be called perpetually an "Anglo," alas. Perfect place to fade away, or grow sunburned and pinker trying.

Gavin's book is an accurate introduction. Not as much about O.C.--which is not the GOP John Bircher stereotype anymore but full of barrios, Persians in exurbs, and vast Vietnamese enclaves as well as tract home red-tile endless strips in the hills and southern sections--but about the city where I teach and the general "L.A. Basin"'s feel. Still, O.C. and greater L.A. have the same atmosphere. (Even if O.C. has far better/wider roads; beige walls around subdivisions that all really do look the same, if decades apart in stages of such a transformation; more affluence in certain burbs; and the Angels and not the Dodgers as usurping "home" team.) He captures the endless driving and the concrete, smoggy, and faceless quality well, beyond the common Beverly Hills-Hollywood facades beloved by many "makeovers."

Anonymous said...

Your description exactly reflects my experience of Cal.
What I should have noted in the above post, is my impression that so many books about Cal. are rather depressing. Especially those written by Californians. Yet, the history of Cal. represents so much about the character of America, in it's robustness, risk taking, and sense of hope. Like the rest of the country, one is forced to wonder what happened to all that energy.
I am such a poor writer, I
often lose track of my original thought. While you write in Gaelic, I can barely manage my native tongue.