April 29: “Illuminati” by Jim Gavin

Happy Friday, Story366. Today marks a weird weekend in the semester when I really don’t have all that much grading to do, don’t have a million appointments, and don’t have any course preps left. There’s only one shortened week of classes left before finals, and in writing classes, we don’t really have finals. Sure, this coming week, I’ll get a big portfolio from each of my student and then I’ll start a grading marathon, but for today, I get to not think for a bit.

That doesn’t mean that I’ll stop reading stories. In fact, I’ll probably read more this weekend than I usually do. Did that start today? Sure. I read a few stories from the latest O. Henry anthology, which I assigned for my advanced workshop class. For the blog, though, I also read a few stories from Jim Gavin’s collection Middle Men. I picked this book up a few of years ago (actually, on the last day of classes, so it’s almost exactly three years ago), and I immediately read a couple of stories from it, which I remember liking. They were stories of young men living in LA, down and out, trying to make it in Hollywood somehow. Then I lost track of where I put Middle Men before I could finish it, and it being the first week of summer, I wanted to finish it.

When I started the Story366, I went on a search for as many story collections I could find, and in the back of my mind, Middle Men was on my list of books to track down. On January 1, during the first sweep around my house and office, I didn’t find it. A second effort a month or so later produced it among a pile of photo albums and scrapbooks, almost as if it were trying to become a much more personal type of book in my life. It made its way to a pile at the Story366 work station, to the top of it today.

Today’s story, “Illuminati,” is another story about a young, down and out dude in LA, working in Hollywood, or trying to. His name is Sean, and once, a few years back, he sold a screenplay to a company that wanted to use it to help promote body wash, wanted it to be rewritten as a vehicle for the stars of their body wash commercials. The whole thing folded before it got going, but Sean still got paid a lot of money, plus had his ego assuaged enough to think he could sell another. While he waits for lightning to strike again, he shares an apartment in Riverside with five other guys, sleeps in the kitchen—which he shares—on single bed, placed amongst stacks of magazines and other junk. It’s the kind of Hollywood story that has always scared me away from screenwriting, fear of being that dreamer, sharing a one-bedroom with a ton of out-of-work actors and writers and makeup artists, sleeping in a bath tub and working eight waiter jobs.

The story is initiated when Sean gets a call from his Uncle Jerry, a sorta-wealthy sprinkler system installer who has been keeping Sean’s alcoholic mother afloat pretty much Sean’s whole life. The only reason why Sean isn’t as pathetic and dependent on Uncle Jerry as his mom is that one sold screenplay, sold on a lark to a soap company. Uncle Jerry calls one days and wants Sean to have a lunch with him and Fig, the two men who make up the Illuminati; the Illuminati, in this story, are Jerry and Fig, whom Sean has never seen apart from each other, a couple of aging golfing buddies with money and time and their hands. Jerry has a screenplay idea for Sean, and since Sean is hungry, he agrees to the lunch.

The real glory of Gavin’s story, of his writing, comes in his characterizations. What he’s really good at, from what I can tell, is finding minute details in people, making them real without tons of exposition. Jerry and Fig are a trip, these two sixty-something guys who tell stories at steak joints in the middle of the afternoon, the entire restaurant staring at them, listening. When Sean was a kid, Uncle Jerry would give him twenties—by balling them up and throwing them at his head. What happens at the lunch—what Jerry’s cockamamie idea is—doesn’t matter (though it’s totally fantastic), because it’s just so interesting to see Gavin move his characters through each scene. To escape paying rent, Sean ducks down an alley to his car, passing another landlord-ducker along the way, nodding to each other in brotherhood. His car is riding on a spare, and when that spare blows on the freeway, he convinces the Triple A guy to give him another spare instead of a full-sized, full-priced tire. Everyone is a character, and really, characters are what stories, including Gavin’s, are all about.

So with school ending next week and Middle Men in hand, I should probably take advantage of the fact I’ve found it and finish it, like I planned to in 2013. And you know what? I just might do that.

Jim Gavin