Look around your local bookstore and check out the action on the shelves. Seems like the novel's often-neglected little brother — the short story collection — is elbowing in and jostling for some of that prime shelf space.
The biggest one probably is “Tenth of December” by George Saunders, who might be the country's most influential story writer since Raymond Carver. Like Saunders' previous three collections, it's wonderful.
Other notables include Pulitzer Prize finalist Karen Russell's second collection, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” and the first collection from acclaimed novelist Jess Walter, “We Live in Water.”
But the one I was impatiently awaiting was Jim Gavin's debut, “Middle Men.” Gavin's story “Costello” was plucked from the slush pile and published by the New Yorker in December 2010. Rough place to debut, right? “Costello” wasn't typical New Yorker fare: A widowed plumbing salesman eludes his neighbor's invitation to watch fireworks and ponders how to rid his pool of a dead lizard trapped on the bottom. Landing a story about a plumber in the world's premier place for short fiction speaks loudly to the Southern California native's writing chops.
In the new collection, Gavin's characters are men trying to make their way in a world where the deck seems so obviously stacked against them. These “Middle Men” sense this; they know things aren't going the way they thought they would. Yet they keep searching for grace no matter how elusive it seems to be.
Gavin's collection is populated by television production assistants, deliverymen and failed stand-up comics, men whose careers are either coming to their inevitable end or stalled before ever really starting. The backdrop is an Orange County devoid of glamour but long on concrete freeway miles and Del Taco eateries.
Gavin's characters are funny and sad, and the stories have a definite familiarity. You might recognize that buddy from college who still hasn't gotten his act together or maybe the brother who hasn't been able to catch a break yet still holds on to his dream. These lovable souls have held onto their dignity but not a whole lot more.
This is a writer who understands both the painful and the beautiful moments that make up a human life, and spending time with his characters is a great gift. This collection is a triumph of storytelling and Gavin's loose, relaxed prose is nearly perfect.