I started with “Luau.” It was assigned in our monthly short story book club and it’s the next-to-last story in this collection. “Luau” is followed by “Costello.” The pair of stories form a duet about a son and his father—who both work in plumbing sales in Southern California (where most of the book is set).
Dad, Marty, is a fixture (so to speak) in the business. The son, Matt, is a newcomer.
Early on when we meet Matt in the first story, there’s talk of a luau. Matt is socializing with fellow salesmen at the Panorama Lounge of the Holiday Inn in Long Beach. The salesmen are talking “amid moody neon tube lights and smooth jazz renditions of contemporary pop hits.” Matt gets introduced around as the “new bottom-feeder” and it’s suggested casually that maybe Matt would want to go to the luau.
But, like many of the characters through “Middle Men,” Matt feels like he’s outside the inner circle, that he doesn’t quite belong. He’s not sure that the men really mean what they are saying, but he’s afraid to ask.
“For some reason, the word ‘luau’ distressed Matt. He thought it might be code for a sadistic initiation rite known only to toilet salesmen. There was a lot of lingo in the industry and still, after a year, he barely understood what anyone was talking about. He wanted to ask for specifics, but Larry and Jack were busy ordering another round and his dad had already gone home.”
Matt is a middle man—sort of betwixt and between one stage of life and another. Both “Luau” and “Costello,” in fact, are mostly about how the two generations of men are coping with the loss of Matt’s mother, Marty’s wife.
Like many of the other characters in “Middle Men,” Matt isn’t quite sure about the right thing to do, about how forceful to be with his personality and his life, about whether to set an agenda and pursue it.
I couldn’t say it any better than the New York Times did in a recent review. Gavin’s characters “know, or are beginning to suspect, that the mark they will make on the world is small. But ‘Middle Men’ doesn’t wallow in pessimism; with deft portraiture, nimble prose and an intimacy with the lives of his amiable characters, Gavin shows us that the real work of a life takes place not when the sale is made but when the salesman goes back home, looks in a half-empty refrigerator and considers his options.” (Full review here by Marisa Silver.)
The N.Y. Times published their take on Gavin’s collection several months after touting George Saunders’ “Tenth of December” as the best book you’ll read in 2013. Where Saunders’ collection has dark, almost Orwellian or William Gibson-esque futuristic things going on, “Middle Men” takes us smack into the hopes and fears, dreams and disappointments of today. You will have to sort out what’s happening to get oriented with most of Saunders’ stories, which I enjoyed as well, while Gavin’s pieces are free of mystery. “Middle Men” is very much “now’ and the lives being recounted are from the working class underbelly of today.
A wry, keen-eyed humor—stitched together with empathy and affection—pervades the collection. As each story starts, you can sense that things won’t end well, that each individual’s dreams exceed their grasp or their capability. But Gavin pulls us into their struggles and their quiet, cool acceptance of their lot in life and, ultimately, their humanity.