Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The New Yorker: "Costello" by Jim Gavin

This is late, again, because my copy of the magazine is late, again, and I kept putting off reading the online version because I don’t like to read long stories online, and this is a long one. (And by online I mean in the digital version of the magazine, since this story is not available online to non-subscribers.) (Although you can't read the story online if you're not a subscriber, you can read Deborah Treisman's interview with Gavin: This Week in Fiction: Jim Gavin.)

Too bad, because it’s very readable. In fact, it’s worthy of the Best of the Year list, which I’ll post in a week or so.

Costello—Marty—is a plumbing salesman in Anaheim. He’s got two daughters, one just out of college and the other in college. He lives in a nice ranch house next door to another plumber. He’s sixty, a veteran, and life hasn’t always been easy, especially given the ups and downs of the housing market in LA. But he’s good at what he does and right now he’s up for an award that will be given at a banquet that is really just a drunken mess. (Must have been fun to write the scenes with the drunk plumbers playing polo golf.)

Oh, yeah, and his wife is dead. Except we don’t know that right away. We find out fairly soon that she’s gone, but it takes a while to learn why. The neighbors invite him over for dinner, but he makes an excuse and stays in to watch the Dodgers on TV. (He doesn’t drink much, but he eats a lot of really bad food, and he does that while watching TV, too.) But finally it is revealed that his wife died of cancer and his daughters are trying to help pull him out of the shell that he’s been in since she died.

There are five other strands to the story that are quite interesting. First, Marty is interested in water, sailing ships, and the ocean. Was he in the Navy? He has a copy of Moby Dick and uses various sailing terms in his thoughts and speech. Second, Marty has a pool. Now, the pool obviously is related to his interest in the water, but it also is connected to his wife, who chose the tile and also insisted on an extra-deep deep end. The pool now is scummy and green because Marty hasn’t been taking care of it. Third, there’s a lizard at the bottom of the pool, which prompts a recurring discussion of lizards. Fourth, Marty’s dealing with some faulty plumbing products that have caused a problem in the business. And Fifth, there’s Francine, “the parish retard,” who keeps coming to the house even though Marty’s wife, whom she used to visit is gone.

Eventually it becomes clear that the reason Francine is coming by is to get the wife’s jewelry that she was promised. She takes it and leaves, and maybe Marty is now letting go a little. He agrees to go out to dinner with her daughters and he settles on a visit to Catalina Island for this event—a sailing voyage, of sorts, that also represents his coming out. He doesn’t win his award, apparently because of the defective plumbing, but he gets public praise and seems satisfied. And then, finally, there’s the pool, which he cleans up with chemicals and at long last removes the lizard—the wife’s cancer?—from the pool. (In the story he tosses the lizard over the neighbor’s fence and hears it land in his pool, and I didn’t like that ending. It’s as if he’s cursing his nice neighbors!)

Except for that last line, it’s a terrific story.

December 6, 2010: “Costello” by Jim Gavin


Thomas G. said...

I didn’t really like this story by the end, which is disappointing as I felt it had so much potential. The language is phenomenal and different from what we have seen in TNY in recent weeks.

But this is not the way to write a cancer story. (If everyone wants a good reminder, read Chris Adrian’s “Tiny Feast” from last year).

It seems that Jim Gavin tried to use the wonderful minimalist technique of talking about anything but the thing itself in order to highlight the absence of the wife, but I think he may have gotten carried away. The wife didn’t feel like anyone tangible, in fact their relationship felt devoid of spark. I was more worried about the lizard than what had happened to her (also, I thought the lizard metaphor was a bit heavy handed, something one might see in a workshop and not contributing to the story in any authentic, meaningful way.)

Overall, I don’t think this story was successful but I really did enjoy the language and the bullet-point type sentences.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I would agree that this is a "cancer story". If it was, I would understand your point - I didn't get a strong sense of the deceased wife as a character. But I think the story wasn't meant to be a cancer story, and I don't think that the wife's death was supposed to be the central aspect of the story. I think the story was primarily about Marty, and was more about the life of a plumber salesman living in 21st century Los Angeles than it was about a widower.

Unknown said...

I agree that this doesn't really feel like a "cancer story." The cancer here is even more sublimated than in Chris Adrian's wonderful story of last year. In fact, both stories put cancer right where it should be, in fiction--far away from the center, as a contributing motivator (or de-motivator), but not as the primary conflict.

Have to agree with Thomas G., though, that the lizard symbolism might be a bit much, although I liked it on the first read.

Anonymous said...

It feels like a carver rip-off, and not a very good one at that.

Unknown said...

Throwing the lizard into the "neighbor's pool" (he doesn't say if it's Rocha's or some other neighbor's) felt to me like willingness by Costello, in his way, of letting go of the pain. I didn't see it so much as him cursing anyone (the pool was a convenient, possibly unintended target). I also liked the contrast between the lizard and the dragonfly.

Alicia said...

I didn't see it as a cancer story as much as a story about grief. I liked it a lot.

DanHale said...

I thought it was great. Minimalist and I had no idea that the wife was dead for much of it but the reveal didn't seem like a trick. I also liked his frankness in describing his wife's state near the end. I also like the slightly uplifting ending and the feeling of myth with such a banal setting and subject.

Anne Beller said...

Who is this guy? Where has he published? What else of his is out there for the rest of us to read? Why can't you google him? What does he do for a living? When is his novel coming out? What about the book of stories? How old is he? Where did he learn to write like that?

Unknown said...

Whoa, there, Anne! Actually, you can Google "Jim Gavin" but it takes you to the website of a "Hard Boiled" Jim Gavin, a different writer altogether, it would seem.

A little birdie tells me that he's shopping a book of stories and something else tells me it won't be long before he it lands somewhere.

Unknown said...

I really loved this short by Jim Gavin. I just spent some time googling his name trying to find more, but as Clifford points out, there's another guy with the same name who has an interesting blog.

Anyway, I lost a wife of 30 years to cancer and I have a couple of daughters who lost a mother, and to me, it's a story about a guy who is just trying to get by it and not lose himself too.

I thought it was brilliant, but that's just one man's opinion.

Anonymous said...

Jim is a former Stegner Fellow. He doesn't have a lot of publishing credits yet, but that's going to change soon: his collection "Middle Men" has been picked up by Simon & Schuster.