The prospect of what Adam is sure will be a knockout performance at the mike brings him a sense of his future: "He looked down Lincoln Boulevard, a treeless span of auto body shops, futon outlets, and discount shoe emporiums. Adam savored these sights, knowing that someday, in a nostalgic mood, he would look back fondly on his tawdry origins." The problem is, as his act shows with excruciating clarity, Adam is profoundly unfunny, and after his performance his spirits take a dive: "He was waiting for something to click. In books and interviews all of his comic heroes had described a moment onstage when, after stumbling for many years, they suddenly, and oftentimes, inadvertently, became themselves.” His existential predicament is typical of Gavin's characters: "He imagined the two versions of himself – the young fraud and the old pro – standing on either side of a dark chasm. If there was some blessed third version of himself, the middle man who could bridge the gap, Adam saw no trace of him in the darkness."
Most of these stories are set in the Southern California of fast food outlets, warehouses, swampy swimming pools, browned golf courses, real estate booms and busts, and the limbo of the freeways. “The Luau,” the first of the stories that make up "Middle Men," gives us Matt Costello, mentioned above, the son of a plumbing-supplies rep. He left college to care for his dying mother, an act that was both kind and a chance to introduce direction into his own life. “When he moved home it felt like a relief because he had a purpose; each day he knew exactly what he had to do, and nobody expected anything from him.” After his mother’s death, Matt is simply stuck and motiveless, waiting, as Galvin’s characters tend to, for something to happen. Finally his father gets him a job in the plumbing supplies business.
This is its own world. Peopled with chancers and canny adepts, it is tough and arcane, a business where a widely distributed faulty ballcock has a seismic effect, and where plumbing supplies are sold according to “a strange and mystifying calculus.” The process (whereby “factory sold to the rep, the rep to the wholesaler, the wholesaler to the contractor, but sometimes the rep skipped a step and talked directly to the contractor, telling him which wholesaler to buy from....”) is as byzantine as it is obnoxious to the MBAs who have arrived – we learn in the following story – to plant the kiss of death on the whole idiosyncratic sales culture.