In Jim Gavin’s debut collection, Middle Men, a man chases a woman who doesn’t want to be chased by him, all the way to Bermuda. He has little money and even less of a plan. A sort of screenwriter endures a seemingly promising meal with his uncle who has always treated he and his mother with far less respect than they deserve, only to realize that once again, he’s going to get short shrift. An unemployed man is drifting and sleepless and on the verge of another episode much to the chagrin of his cousin and keeper.
The “middle” in these stories, represents many things. The men Gavin writes often come from middle-class beginnings and want things just beyond their grasp and find themselves in the, well, middle, of situations they cannot fully control or make sense of. The strength of the stories resides in seeing how these characters reach for what they want, how they try to cope with how little they know or control.
Jim Gavin is a talented writer who allows his stories the room they need to be told. These are stories that are intelligent and quiet and moving, stories that take up time and space in satisfying ways. I recently had the opportunity to talk, via e-mail, with Gavin about his collection, his writing, and more.
The Rumpus: The stories in Middle Men were long short stories and I really enjoyed that, how you took time to tell these stories. Did the length of these stories come naturally?
Jim Gavin: I’ve always written long. Historically, my stories run past what would be a reasonable short story length, and then they die on their way to becoming a novella. I’m really good at hitting that thirty-eight-page dead zone. For a while I tried to write shorter short stories, but it was only so I would have a better chance at getting published. I figured if an editor had a choice between reading a thirty-eight-page story, with a staple barely holding it together, and an eight-page story, they would always give first crack to the shorter one.
I’m always amazed by writers who can deliver a knockout blow in a really short story, but I don’t currently have that in my bag, and I had no better luck trying to publish shorter stories. At some point, I just accepted that my “natural breath”—to use Frank O’Connor’s phrase—was longer. I don’t think I can understand my characters unless I see them in a complete world, with a distinct texture and sense of place. I like to take the time to build that world, and I like to have them bounce off other characters, and that takes up space, too. The English comedian Noel Fielding, of Mighty Boosh fame, described his stand-up as more “atmospheric” than punch line-driven, and that made a lot of sense to me.
My only hope is that the stories don’t read long. If you’re writing longer you have a greater obligation to be entertaining on some level. If anything, a longer story has to move faster than a shorter one. I’d rather write a big, flawed story that’s memorable, than something really short and tight that doesn’t linger in the mind.
Rumpus: I’m always interested in how writers organize a short story collection. What was your intention in the way you arranged these stories? Did you want to have some control over the reader’s experience?
Gavin: I wanted each story to work on its own, but I wanted the reader to feel a movement throughout and a sense of culmination at the end. I didn’t have a plan before I began writing any of these stories, but at some point I started thinking of them in terms of the old guild system, the movement from apprentice to journeyman to master. Many different jobs and pastimes are evoked, but the primary vocation here is life, and what it means to be a full person.
The first three stories are apprentice tales. They are brighter and more overtly comic. The protagonists are naïve and vain and clueless about the grim realities surrounding them and the people in their lives. They are racing towards the future where all their dreams will come true. The next three stories are journeyman tales. In these, the mood grows darker. The protagonists have come of age, they know a little bit more about life; they’ve amassed various triumphs and failures, but they’ve had to revise their sense of the future. They still don’t know who they are, and what’s waiting for them, and for the most part, they are just drifting along and holding on to their old dreams and vanities. The last story, “Costello,” is about a master. He has lived past his dreams. He takes the world as it is and gets on with the business of life. Husband, father, soldier, salesman—he is a complete person. I didn’t feel the need to make this structure explicit anywhere, but in almost all the stories there is some kind of mentor relationship going on, even if the knuckleheaded protagonists don’t quite realize or appreciate it at the time.
Rumpus: How much of yourself have you put into these stories?
Gavin: The stories are very autobiographical. I’ve done all those jobs and lived in all those places. In my mid-twenties, I wanted to write stories that were as far away from my own experience as possible. I tried writing a couple historical novels, but I just couldn’t pull it off. For a few years I stopped writing altogether, but after I my mom died, when I was twenty-nine, I felt like I wanted to try it again; not to become a writer, but to make some sense of my life, which in no way resembled what I thought it would be. I took an adult education class at UCLA and for the first time I started writing about the world I actually knew. My goal was to get down on paper, in a larger and more meaningful way, all the stories I would tell friends in the pub.
Except for “Costello,” the master, every protagonist in the collection is me, or some version of me, and the worlds they pass through are worlds I know really well. But experience is not enough, and anecdotes are not enough. Even when you’re writing deeply personal stories, fiction allows you to invent characters and moments that bridge the gaps in your understanding of the world, and it gives you the opportunity to create something that, hopefully, has wholeness, harmony, and radiance. It gives you the chance to go beyond yourself, even if you have your head up your own ass.
Rumpus: Do you like the “version of you,” that appears in your stories?
Gavin: I think people tell stories in one of two ways (and I mean just in everyday life, not in writing fiction). The first kind of storyteller always cast themselves as the hero, while everyone else around them is a fool. The second kind of storyteller always casts themselves as the fool who is bumbling through life, while everyone around them seems to have figured everything out. I’m definitely the second kind. I’m the fool. I’m always to blame. I’m always the last to know. I’m the source of the plague in Thebes! The versions of me in the book have many naïve and annoying and destructive traits, but at least when they crash on the rocks, they know it’s their fault. They’ve been humbled a million times over, and will continue to be, but because of this they might actually learn something.
Rumpus: Has your writing helped you to make sense of your life? Are there ways in which writing hasn’t been able to bring that clarity?
Gavin: In my mid-twenties I quit a job at a newspaper, and spent a few years doing a bunch of different jobs in the Bay Area. I wanted to be a writer, and I took some classes, but I just wasn’t ready. I was in your classic “wants to be a writer, but doesn’t want to actually write” stage. At some point I stopped altogether and a few years passed. Those were important years if for no other reason that when I started writing again, and took that class at UCLA, I no longer had any hope that it would be career. It was just something I wanted to do, regardless of what happened. In that sense, writing has helped me. I don’t think I’ve come to any major insights about my life—I’m still bumbling through it—but writing has given my life purpose and on a couple occasions it has provided a moment of catharsis that I don’t think I would’ve experienced otherwise. I don’t think I was born to do it. In college, my dream was to write comedy for film and television, and if I had somehow managed to enter that magic and lucrative world, I probably would’ve never looked back. I’m thankful where I ended up. I love movies and I watch ungodly amounts of television, but fiction is always the thing that snaps me back into life.
Rumpus: So many of the men in Middle Men are, literally, in the middle of something and, perhaps, searching for a way to get away from that middle and closer to a more fixed point. What I appreciated is how these men weren’t the typical aimless men of a certain age, refusing to grow up in all the usual ways. Did you consciously work to avoid that rut?
Gavin: The context of this book is the American middle class, at least as I understand it. Neither of my parents went to college, and only a couple of my friends had parents who went to college. Mostly they were electricians and plumbers and truck drivers, but at the time, those jobs provided more than enough for people to own a house in a decent neighborhood. The kids I grew up with were all expected to do better than their parents, to go to college and use their brains instead of their hands. My family always lived month to month, with no savings, and after my dad lost his job, my parents spent the next fifteen years trying and failing to climb out of debt. We did our best, and managed to hold onto the house for a while, but the bank finally took it. In this way, I think we were very typical of the middle class, working more and more for less and less, and always living beyond on our means.
In the book I was trying to capture this feeling of always being on the edge—the dream of moving up, the fear of falling down. The characters are flawed in many ways, but if nothing else they care about the world and they want to be part of it. Though some are lost in grief, they are not passive; they’re trying to make something happen in their lives, whether it’s falling in love or trying to master an art form, like stand-up. None of them are rebels. The things they want are fairly conventional, but a conventional life is getting harder and harder to come by. They’ve lost, and will continue to lose, but I don’t think that makes them losers. Ayn Rand would probably call them second-handers, but they’re not going to give up and they’re going to find some accommodation with themselves.
Rumpus: Who or what have been some of your creative influences?
Gavin: If I ever say anything remotely funny or intelligent, there’s a ninety-nine percent chance that I’m quoting The Simpsons. I didn’t start reading seriously, on my own, until college. One afternoon, I randomly picked up The Crying of Lot 49, because I liked the cover, and it blew me away. I didn’t know there were books like that, incredibly funny and mysterious, with sentences that seemed to create an entire new reality. So I became a Pynchon freak, and that sent me in all kinds of different directions.
Later, I read Ulysses, because I wanted to read the big books. I understood about five percent, but that was enough to make me obsessed, but it was more of an intellectual obsession. I didn’t get the emotional underpinnings of the book. After my mom died, I re-read the first chapter, and it destroyed me. It was like an entirely different book. It was simple, honest, and humane, and more than anything, hilarious. There are still vast sections I don’t really get, but I also don’t know the names of all the constellations. That doesn’t make the night sky any less beautiful.
I’m also constantly inspired/intimidated by all the amazing stuff that’s going on right now. Writers like Jesmyn Ward, Ben Fountain, Sam Lipsyte, Suzanne Rivecca, Claire Vaye Watkins—they just seem to be on another level. They all cut to the bone in a way that seems entirely new.
Rumpus: I was really moved by “Bewildered Decisions in Times of Mercantile Terror,” and, in particular, the ending with that moment between Nora and Bobby, the grand gesture she makes, and the way you leave things implied but unsaid. How did this story come to end in such a place?
Gavin: I struggled with that ending more than any other. I rewrote it dozens of times, over the course of a couple years, and it never seemed right. As the story was falling into place, I saw it as a kind of dark night of the soul duet, like “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues, the P.O.V. shifting back and forth between Bobby and Nora, but I couldn’t get the final chorus, when they sing together. I always had Bobby going into Ringo’s bathroom to shave—that is kind of foreshadowed throughout. But then it finally occurred to me that he should shave his head too, especially since that’s what he might’ve done as a college swimmer. And so for a while I saw the end as Nora shaving his head, but this seemed to lack an essential balance between the two characters. I kept rewriting, feeling that something was missing. Then, almost without my knowing it, Nora made the final gesture, and this seemed to line up the whole story, from the title down through each moment, until these two characters find themselves alone together.
Rumpus: Early in that story, Nora wonders about “her own reaction to mortal danger,” as she studies the laminated safety card. How would you react to mortal danger? Why are laminated safety cards so inscrutable? (I like to steal them, as an aside.)
Gavin: I’m pretty sure I would shit myself. When my dad tells his Vietnam stories, I usually just sit there, imagining myself running away and crying. But I guess you never really know until you get there. The whole safety procedure on planes, starting with the laminated safety cards, is so bizarre, but we’ve all become immune to flight attendants breezily walking us through the worst nightmare anyone can imagine. But maybe that’s exactly how it should be.
Rumpus: Los Angeles is always such an interesting setting for fiction. I’ve always loved writing about that city and how in great hands, the city becomes a character itself. How did you think of place in these stories? What did you want a sense of place to do for these narratives?
Gavin: I’ve never lived outside of California, so once I started writing about my own life I guess it was inevitable that it would take on a certain weight. I have one Hollywood story, set on a movie lot, but that world is seen entirely from the bottom. All the other SoCal stories are set in places less well known, or maybe less depicted in film and fiction. Those just happen to be the places I feel most at home. At some point I saw certain things popping up again and again—freeways, pools, fast food joints. I decided to be as specific as possible with all these things. In some sense, I wrote these stories for people who grew up here. I love books that give me the texture of a place, even if I’ve never been there; or I should say, especially if I’ve never been there. I love hearing the names of streets, bars, lakes, and all those little things that loom in a character’s imagination. In these stories, I don’t think I offer a very picturesque vision of California—I somehow forgot to include the obligatory riff on the Santa Ana winds—but I tried to capture it through the eyes of the characters, who love the place, if only because it’s the only place they know.
Rumpus: What is your favorite book about Southern California?
Gavin: All of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels. A few years ago, while living in the Miracle Mile neighborhood, I was reading a Macdonald novel and from a few stray references I figured out that Lew Archer’s shitty bachelor apartment was also in the Miracle Mile. I felt less alone!
L.A. Breakdown by Lou Mathews. This one is out of print, which is a travesty. It’s set in the late sixties and revolves around the eastside street racing scene. Mathews was a mechanic for twenty years. No one knows more about cars and, hence, Los Angeles.
Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn. Surf noir set in north O.C. The plot is insane, and the local details are perfect. Zeroville by Steve Erickson. I love all his stuff but this one, a descent into the pit of 1970s cinema, is just so much goddamn fun. Favorite SoCal movie: Repo Man.
Rumpus: What do you like most about your writing?
Gavin: This is a diabolical question! I think my one virtue is that I have a sense of proportion. I’m an average person, from an average background, and I have an average intelligence. I don’t have anything profound or original to say, and I don’t have a natural gift for language. But I think all these things are blessings, because I can just get on with telling a story. I have total faith in fiction. I struggle to write—it’s the absolute hardest thing in the world—but I never struggle with whether or not I should be writing, or if fiction is worthwhile, or a relevant form, or if Language can truly convey experience, or if there’s any true meaning in the world. I’ll let the Ivy League kids sort that stuff out.
Photography of Jim Gavin © 2013 by Fred Schroeder.