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Writer Jim Gavin plays the man in a mercy-challenged world

Jim Gavin, author of the new collection of

Jim Gavin, author of the new collection of short stories, Middle Men. Photo Credit: Fred Schroeder

Jim Gavin, 36, has just published a hilarious and moving debut of stories about men negotiating the maze of modern masculinity and zombie economics called "Middle Men." Gavin, who has had his short stories published in ZYZZYVA, Zoetrope, The Paris Review, The Mississippi Review and The New Yorker, and who lives in Culver City, Ca., will be reading from and signing copies of Middle Men at 7 p.m. Saturday March 9 at Book Court, 163 Court St., Brooklyn.

Was it hard to get this collection published?

Collections are really hard to publish. All of the stories in there had been rejected, and I sent the book out to lots of agents in 2010 and they all passed, except one who showed interest and was encouraging.  Then I got the story 'Costello' accepted in the New Yorker. It came out in December 2010, and in January, the book was accepted. Who knows if any of these stories would have seen the light of day if the New Yorker hadn't taken 'Costello.'

Economic insecurity is such a strongly felt theme in your stories.

I can't imagine any story or character of mine where that is not a central issue. The people on my street in Orange, Calif. where I grew up were plumbers and electricians. We lived in a ranch house. In the early 1980s when we were doing all right, we put in a pool. Last year, that house that I grew up in was foreclosed. It's terrible to see your childhood home be taken away. The feeling when I grew up was there was a certain quality of life you could have in middle class America, but that's gone away. I love Henry James, but half the time his characters are talking about when they're coming into their inheritances. In (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus is constantly tabulating how many coins he has in his pocket: That is what feels real to me. My characters live on the edge, about to be crushed by despair. They have hopes of moving up, but there is the constant fear they'll fall back. The American dream now is just to get to zero. I don't even think about getting rich. I just think about getting out of debt.

The character of Costello was modeled on your dad, also a plumbing supply salesman. Has he read the story?

I was really nervous, but he read the story and he got a kick out of it. My sister told me he's been making copies and handing them out to his customers. I worked for two years in plumbing supplies and that whole ballcock fiasco (in which a defective toilet part called a ballcock was widely distributed, alienating many customers) was a real thing. I'd be delighted if someone in that industry were to say I got it right. I strive for fidelity to the world I'm depicting.

 What role does Catholicism play in your work?

The first image in the book is of martyrdom! You can't escape a Catholic childhood. My parents made a lot of sacrifices to put us through Catholic school. I'm a typical lapsed Catholic and have problems with the church for all the reasons you might imagine, but in my adult life I've discovered some of the theology and find a lot of beauty in it. There's so much beauty in something like Dante.

Isn't Dante best known for writing about the nine circles of hell?

(Laughs). Yeah -- the beauty of hell! I'm a weird Catholic nerd. I like theology and the idea of mercy really runs through the book. A lot of the characters secretly wish for the world to take mercy on them for just one second. It's very un-American to ask for help -- we almost have to be taken by the collar.

Is there a Catholic humor, as there is a Jewish humor?

My humor is distinctly Irish Catholic, which is close to a Jewish sensibility -- doom and gloom and gallows humor. It can be dark, but there's also a certain anarchy. The vitality in life comes out of subverting. Laughter and joking is a way of dealing with life, and often a key to survival. The Irish and the Jews are particularly attuned to that.

Few writers write as candidly and amusingly as you do about the burdens of masculinity in recessionary times.

The book is sort of about the charade of masculinity and men stripping away the acts they put on to appear masculine. Masculinity is an act -- fake stoicism and all the virtues men like to associate with themselves, like being tough. I find it exhausting. I came out of a jock context, playing high school sports, but having to have that veneer on all the time is also sad. The toughest characters in this book are all women -- that grew out of my own experience. The greatest man in modern literature for me is Leopold Bloom (in "Ulysses" by James Joyce), because he's totally relinquished all his male vanity. I don't want a future where men are all taking their cues from the guys on 'Entourage' -- that would be a nightmare.

The people who are materially successful in your stories aren't necessarily admirable.

We associate wisdom with success, but I think the opposite: Failure and mistakes are what make you a whole person. You don't learn anything from success. Failure allows you to see people with more empathy. None of my characters are complaining. Costello has had lots of ups and downs and lots of roles -- a soldier, a husband, a father. He's a master at life, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have flaws and neuroses.

Is financial success worth the cost to attain it?

We construct these idealized futures in our heads about where we're supposed to be moving to and then get to the future and it's not there any more. The book is dedicated to my mother (who died in 2007) and all these stories were written after (she died).  I chucked everything I wrote in my 20s and started writing about my own life, just to make sense of it. Losing someone close to you is terrible, but it does make you more appreciative of what is important. I definitely don't think of life in terms of money. The things that make me happy I could be doing for almost no money -- reading, writing, going to the beach, shooting baskets. To me, success is about being human -- being able to love someone and to be loved, and having these moments of grace with another person.

Are there similarities between Los Angeles and NYC?

Oh yeah. People in LA and NYC go there to get something out of it. There's this energy and gold rush feeling, but it can turn people into monsters. You can sometimes be talking to people and realize they're not even talking to you -- they're staring past you, staring into their futures.

Is the character Max -- a remarkably self-involved talk show host absorbed in the minutia of Belgian history -- based on Jeopardy's host Alex Trebek?

Well, I used to work for Jeopardy. Perhaps there is a bit of a model but (pause) -- it's a complete fabrication.

The book is so cinematic, and has characters right in the popular Hollywood demo. Any movie deals?

None! But I wouldn't object if one came along.

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