by Jim Gavin

The idea of the middleman has long been synonymous with money wasted; we all know they’re something to be cut out. Though “middleman” still conjures someone in a brown suit and fedora with a locked briefcase, the middleman most likely to suffer if you buy this book (which you should) is your local bookstore.

In Jim Gavin’s stellar first short story collection, only the title story has a classic middleman character. The others expand the concept to include boys and men caught in flux, in the in-between stages of things. These are characters who believe they’ve achieved something special—a spot on the college team, an older girlfriend, a job in showbiz, an apprenticeship—only to realize, quickly, that it’s not going to work out.

Middle MenGavin, a Los Angeles native, sets these stories in mostly unheralded parts of Southern California. This isn’t the SoCal of surfers, red carpets or hard-boiled detectives; it’s the SoCal of plumbers, software sales conferences and multiple-mortgages.

There’s one stereotype about his hometown that Gavin doesn’t try to dispel, and that’s that Los Angelenos spend all their time in cars (one that inspired the Saturday Night Live soap skit “The Californians,” in which a character’s admonition to “get the hell out of here!” is always followed by a complex series of driving directions). In “Bermuda,” 23-year-old Brian falls in love with Karen, an ex-musician ten years his senior whom he meets while delivering Meals on Wheels. The protagonist of  “Illuminati” describes the experience of driving down a traffic-free freeway as “quiet and peaceful, like an empty church.” If Gavin’s characters are middlemen, then the freeways and onramps they roam are the middle spaces.

Gavin’s stories usually have subtle, witty twists. In “Elephant Doors,” Adam, who’s recently been hired as a production assistant on a Jeopardy!-like quiz show, is summoned to the palatial home of the show’s moody, Belgian history-obsessed host, Max Lavoy. On his first visit, Adam, too nervous to ask for the shoes he removed at the door, leaves through the garage in his socks. What seemed a potential opportunity turns into a no-win situation, however, when Max asks Adam to break into his ex-wife’s home and steal his beloved dog back. The twist part comes later.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the semi-autobiographical “Middle Men,” part of which first appeared in The New Yorker, is the best plumbing story you’ll read this decade. Divided into two parts, the first is told from the perspective of Matt, who, after frittering away his 20s bartending and not finishing college, has swallowed his pride and asked his toilet salesman father, Marty, for a job. Matt’s initiation into plumbing culture isn’t easy, but it’s made harder by the fact that the company is still reeling from a devastating ballcock recall. One of Adam’s mentors, Larry, insists he attend the luau—a sacred industry event presided over by Kurtz-like figure named Lamrock. The story’s second part is told from Marty’s viewpoint. Recently widowed to cancer, Marty spends his evenings floating in the pool he installed years ago and still can’t afford—a stab at the elusive middle class status that had once seemed his due.

Gavin builds a deep sense of intimacy with these characters, to the degree that when he switches to third person in a couple of stories it feels a bit jarring, like “an octopus inking the water” as Brian says of Karen in “Bermuda.” Intelligent, funny and deeply empathetic, Gavin is a writer who already sounds like a defining modern voice for his sprawling turf. Glamour is nice and all, but we can’t live without plumbing, or good books.