Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Short-a-Day: Jim Gavin's "Costello"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Dec. 6, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 73.

Somewhere along the line, someone convinced fiction editors -- particularly those at The New Yorker -- that description was the key to any good story, forgetting, in the process, that unless it truly communicates something, it's all just words. What does a good image truly accomplish? At best, it snaps you out of the story for a moment, as you see it with the eyes of your own experience, and when you slingshot back in, perhaps it feels realer, more vivid -- despite the fact that you've been skimming surfaces, far from immersed. I bring this up because Gavin's opening details and dialogue -- Martin Costello, plumbing sales rep extraordinary (well, at least for this section of Anaheim), is smoking on the diving board, fishing a lizard out of his greenish pool, and talking with his landscaping neighbor, Jesse Rocha -- are great, but bogged down with stuff like this: "Saturday, an extra layer of brightness, Saturday brightness, like God opening a window in the sky" and "The trimmer snaps on, the noise making a million tiny cracks in the afternoon." It takes away from the mundane greatness of this: "The back yard needs work. Weeds flaming up from cracks in the concrete, all the flowerpots empty, the patio cover rotten with termites." See the difference in evocation?

It's odd, too, because this opening doesn't really fit the rest of the story, for Gavin soon lapses into a more direct, borderline abrupt, rhythm: "Keys, doors, faster. A fucking zombie attack," he thinks after running into a mentally handicapped acquaintance at Mass; "Dick Dale on cassette, black coffee from McDonald's, a trunkful of defective ball cocks," he writes, describing his drive to work. There are a few sour notes that sound out of character ("Let them throw his body over the side of a transition loop, commending his soul to Trafficus rex"), but at least the story's built enough momentum by this point -- what exactly happened to his wife to turn him into a sloth, a recluse, a social-engagement-avoiding-liar? -- to pave over these patches.

Rough stuff aside, Costello's an interesting character: a self-described plumbing "lifer," a term that grows more humorous in an extended flashback that explains that he was originally recruited into the business (after a military discharge) because they needed someone like him for his softball team. He just happens to be such a hard worker -- never a day off in his life -- that he climbs the ranks, and he's so good at shooting the shit (literally, he'll pass off what he's heard in one conversation -- Gila monsters don't have assholes -- as fact in another) that people like and look out for him. Of course, he's not a long-term thinker, so when the market collapses (in 1990), he's got no money, his wife panics, and he goes on extreme credit (giving context to his earlier line about his home's three "glorious" mortgages).

It's a credit to Gavin's character-building that for the longest time, we can accept that his wife has left him just as easily as we can believe that she has died: he is irrepressibly irresponsible. There's another neat doubling, too: Costello refers to a time in his past as "the Plague," which we are led to believe is merely the crash of the plumbing market . . . but which is also "a year of radiation," something that twins to the current story as Costello dumps cleansing, poisonous, calcium hypochlorite into his scummy pool.

The last several pages, however, are a huge disappointment: when we catch Costello in action at the farcical year-end W.C.P.A. golf tournament/awards ceremony, he doesn't resemble the sad sack from the pool-cleaning beginning of the story (a week ago), nor the go-getter of his flashbacks and work environment. It's not clear why, when everyone around him gets drunk, he declines to; it's not clear why he's willing to socialize with his neighbor and neighbor's wife out on the green, but not at his next-door BBQ. Like the neat but empty scene involving the far-off but visible fireworks from Disney Land, this goes nowhere, and it turns out that Gavin's real trick is obscuring so much that he can coast by to an ambiguous ending. There are many different types of happiness, and who are we to judge the ease of another man's personal satisfaction, but as in the beginning, Gavin gets lost in an image -- a drowned iguana -- and loses Costello's purpose.

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