I loved Jim Gavin’s collection Middle Men, which isn’t surprising, although it is surprising how intense the conceptual continuity is between his short fiction and the world of his brilliant, tragically short-lived TV series Lodge 49. Middle Men’s seven stories are delightfully quirky reads in their own right, but collectively they give the impression of diving into the formative matter of Lodge 49. If I were Jeff Bezos, the first thing I would do—aside from paying taxes and valuing my employees—would be to throw money at Jim Gavin to finish his beautiful show. Then again, if I were Bezos, I probably wouldn’t even remotely comprehend Jim Gavin’s vision. Writing with incisive humor and empathy, Gavin examines the male casualties of an American patriarchy that has groomed them for world-bending success—without preparing them for the consequences when they don’t achieve it. These are stories about losers, in other words, most of them set against the chaotic sprawl of Southern California. Having lived in Los Angeles long enough to know how vibrant, polluted, and surreal SoCal is, I could practically taste the backdrop here. And really, could there be a more appropriate place to tell stories about failure than the media nerve center of all our distorted perceptions about success? Lovable losers, frustrated dreamers, the mad tangle of sun-baked California freeways—it all slots this book right into a very particular sweet spot for me.
It starts with stories of young men struggling to find their path: “Play the Man,” about a high school basketball player navigating unrealistic expectations for an athletic career, and “Bermuda,” a quirky tale of a fumbling young man’s fleeting love affair with an older woman. Both are funny, heart-felt, and effortlessly read, resolving satisfyingly with quiet realizations. The humor ramps considerably with “Elephant Doors,” which chronicles the absurd entertainment industry career of a gameshow assistant. This laugh-out-loud tale is the first to show signs of Lodge 49 DNA, with witty insight into lopsided male power dynamics (and golf cart banter reminiscent of Dud and Champ’s nocturnal Orbis security gig). I think my favorite story overall is “Bewildered Decisions in Times of Mercantile Terror,” a touching depiction of a relationship between cousins: Bobby, a lost soul prone to spiraling moods, and Nora, an attractive marketing exec whose success comes with a dispiriting price. The close-but-distant familial relationship between Bobby and Nora conjures thoughts of Dud and Liz on Lodge 49, but it’s a beautiful standalone piece that crystallizes its loopy build-up into a perfect final moment. The eponymous diptych that ends the collection is where visions of the Lodge really start to form: “The Luau” depicts the struggles of Matt, a young man who falls into a poor-fit career as a plumbing supplies salesman, while the companion piece “Costello” dives into the life of Matt’s father, the established salesman who got him the job. It’s impossible not to see visions of Dud, Dud’s father, Ernie, and even the Captain here, in stories that explore the tragic irrelevance of ordinary men trying to make a living in an unforgiving world.
Overall, I adored this collection, and while I’ll acknowledge that appreciation was shaped—by my love of Lodge 49, my experiences in SoCal, and (sadly) how comfortably I relate to mediocre white dudes—I’d venture to say it will appeal more broadly as well. It’s definitely a nice change of pace from the bloated apocalyptic scenarios or life-and-death stakes that dominate so much of our entertainment. The world could stand to find more room for effective, small stories about obscure people figuring out their lives, because let’s face it—isn’t that most of us?