When I read "Costello" in the New Yorker, I recognized my father, my city, and his stoicism. Jim Gavin and I share the same ethnic, religious, and class background, as well as the same native Southern Californian affiliation. 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 this portrait of terrain and people he and I know well.
I preface my review with this to show how closely I find mirrored Gavin's sensibility in my own reactions. As this is a locale often stereotyped (a stand-up comic two months in L.A. is cited; his routine--a lot of phonies, and what about that traffic), it's fun to see a local's take on it. Gavin's background (including a stint assisting Jeopardy as well as working for a plumbing firm and other odd 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, not 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.
"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 (the regional difference is apparent if subtly marked here). "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 living in SoCal (for the most part); they appear deracinated and torn from any ancestral solidarity with their motherland. Parishes (names seem accurate here) endure as links, but there's no diffident Jesuit or lesson-toting nun to comment on moral conundrums. No theological intrusions, no cassocked wiseguys, 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 Maria (the one character who connects with Ireland by her visits) from the Irish-emigrant barkeep--beyond accents--stands our very little in today's San Francisco.
For the narrator in "Bermuda," an "Araby"-type of longing endures in musician-boho Echo Park, along with familiar Los Feliz faux-gothic architecture held over from the era of James M. Cain. A fellow bohemian is not a star, but "cosmic debris," as all are on the make. The "twin beasts of reality: logic and finance" intrude. Gavin looks as if he'll peddle a facile noir-meets-hipster saga here. But he creates a welcome detour to chase down Karen, the mismatched love interest (victim of a "platonic gangbang" as always the only female among a male crowd), who winds up in the tropics, where her lover 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 Alex's status in Hollywood, but whose screenplay sale failed to land him success. He endures his tiresome uncle's routines. "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 this author demonstrates attests to his ear, his patience, and his craft. Gavin's skill finds its surest expression in longer stories: these manage to suggest more than they describe. By no means minimalist, they churn along as the characters roam and ponder and drive on and on. Some could be novellas. None of them failed to keep my interest, and with one exception of municipal phrasing--our local "Cal State" is not referred to colloquially by "Los Angeles" appended but simply "L.A." in conversation--he gets the rhythms, attitude, and pitch of SoCal chatter right.
Nora leaves San Francisco, with its posing progressives (they don't donate to lefty causes but they "identify" with them) among the "corduroy mafia," 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 "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. As a counter to such pomp and jargon, it depicts Nora as an Irish American in California trying to grasp her cultural sustenance. She (as with many in these stories) scarfs down Del Taco while she puts down her BlackBerry to pick up Liam O'Flaherty's grim narrative of the Great Hunger, 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 L.A. and 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; he's 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 slightly altered form; slightly altered again 2-11-13 for PopMatters)