Jim Gavin: “Costello”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Jim Gavin’s “Costello” was originally published in the December 6, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

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Jim Gavin’s “Costello” took me a long time to read. I started it several times and kept putting it down after a couple of columns. I just was not in the mood, I guess. When I finally forced myself to sit down with it, pay attention, and keep my mind focused, it worked out much better. I still wasn’t blown away by it, and landed only just on the positive side of neutral, but I think it has much more to do with the way I finally had to force myself to read it than with the story itself.

The story concerns Marty Costello. He lives alone in his home in Southern California, close enough to Disney Land that he can go out on his roof to watch the fire works. He’s a salesman, though he’s not young anymore. Gavin’s prose is the kind that gets you to feel what the narrator is feeling without ever actually telling you what the narrator is feeling. For example, one night in order to avoid his neighbors’ good intentions, he parks his car where they won’t see it and sneaks into his dark house to watch a baseball game by himself.

In the kitchen, by the light of the refrigerator, Costello takes out a giant bag of hot dogs. Then a giant tub of mustard, then a giant tub of mayonnaise. Smart & Final, apocalypse shopping. He puts dogs on a paper plate, shoves them in the microwave. Waiting, he sets up four buns, slapping on mustard and mayonnaise. He takes a fifth bun, balls it up, dips it in the mayonnaise, swallows it whole. The dogs pop and hiss. He pours Pepsi from a two-litre bottle into a clean glass just out of the dishwasher. A bit of decorum.

Costello is miserably passing the time, and not much matters to him anymore. He’s so lonely he avoids people. The reason pops up by implications throughout the story.

Costello spends Monday night sitting in his chair, watching reruns of “Law & Order.” The phone rings. He never gets there in time, picks it up right when the machine turns on, creating stress and chaos for everyone involved. Gone more than a year, and she’s still on the outgoing message.

One of these calls is from one of his daughters. She and his other daughter want to take him out on the weekend: “Don’t go to any trouble,” Costello says. “I want you guys to enjoy your weekend.” Most of the story takes place between this call and that weekend dinner date. All the while we see Costello create and retain misery.

It is a powerful story, though it has its longuers. I suspect my opinion that places it somewhere in the middle is in the minority.

8 thoughts on “Jim Gavin: “Costello””

  1. Okay. I’ve been on holiday for the past two weeks and look where that got me! Believe it or not, I get much more reading and writing done when I’m in my regular routine. If I’m vacationing somewhere, other things pop up. Consequently, I have a lot of catching up to do for my New Yorker reading.

    But, the forum is up for your thoughts!

  2. Thomas says:

    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.

    I wonder though if it’s possible to write a good cancer story anymore (I assume the wife had cancer as he mentions radiation, etc.) I know that it is (read: Chris Adrian’s “Tiny Feast” from last year if you don’t believe me), but this is a concern that someone raised on another blog that has plagued me in my own writing. I just think the subject was not handled well in this story.

    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. I was more worried about the lizard than what happened to her (also, I also thought the lizard metaphor was a bit heavy handed.)

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

  3. jim says:

    a remarkably well-written story.

    as a transplanted new yorker living in los angeles (for thirty-odd years), i especially enjoyed how well gavin catches the ‘other’ southern california, where real people live and work.

    his phrasing is glorious and he blends perfectly the bleakness and tragedies of life with the (usually) powerful needs to survive and to forge ahead. at its heart, it is an existential tale, albeit one interwoven with touching humor.

    gavin reminds me of a latter-day john cheever, that master of the short story who so wonderfully told, with pathos and empathy, the tales of life’s ‘non-winners’.

  4. Ken says:

    This is the first time I’ve ever not finished a short story. I found it really dull: another tiresome midlife crisis narrative, a lumpen, apathetic dull protagonist. The snarky style with its ironic undercutting of any attempt at meaning or grandeur in the environment or his career was particularly irritating.

  5. mark christensen says:

    Jim,

    As someone who has lived at the bottom of LA county and the top of Orange county for 25 years–and who has had books published reflecting that experience(Build the Perfect Beast, SoCal Speed, Acid Christ)–all I can say is that you are a genius.

    My wife and I are lucky to live numbed in Laguna,but thank the Catholic Jesus I realize one wrong biopsy and it’ll be me (or her) and the TV set alone with big hot dogs in a big bag.

    “Costello” sits in my head and won’t go away.

    Best to the blog, Mark Christensen

  6. Betsy says:

    “Costello” provided a lot of internal conversation for me. First of all, thinking of Joan Didion, it’s not a year of grief – it’s the last week in a year in the hostage of death. So I liked the restraint. Second, it’s not just grief; it’s also love and rage and paralysis and relief and resurrection, so to speak, not to get too carried away. Thinking of Arthur Miller, it’s a kind of reply – this is a salesman who survives. So third, the story lives and breathes a life. There’s a kind of living in the minute with a decent guy who’s gradually emerging from the “full-fathom five” of losing his wife. I found Costello’s company comforting – the way he says about being a salesman: “This is the beauty of every job. Listening to stories.” Maybe you have to be 60 to get it. Or have had a death that was a death a day. I got it when Costello said, “A thing died in our bed — it wasn’t you.” He was speaking for my father, who actually didn’t survive the experience very well. That Costello does? Well, he brings a lot to it when it hits, is all I can say, and maybe that’s why he survives it. I loved the way Costello imagines life – the way he uses stories to survive it – the way he thinks of the telephone pole in his yard as a mast (not a cross) — the way he admires the sea farers. Thanks, Jim Gavin. This is a great story. I read it twice. I woke up thinking about it. Kind of a challenge to write a salesman story – have it not be bleak, but in the end, have it have hope. I thought it worked. But it wasn’t an easy story. I had to read it twice. I thought it took courage and time to write. It took a little of each for me to read it.

  7. Betsy Pelz says:

    Hi, Trevor.

    Since you began reworking the web-site, I have been waiting for this story to appear in my in-box.

    Your review of Jim Gavin’s “Costello” (late 2010) is how I found your wonderful blog. I loved Costello’s story and wanted to thank him for it. But I couldn’t seem to find the right means until I stumbled upon The Mookse and the Gripes. Thanks for the welcome you give people. It seemed ever so natural to submit a comment. I notice, however, that it took me a while to post it..

    It was such an interesting intellectual process that I thought, “Why not try to do this for a year?”

    It seemed like writing once a week for a year about a New Yorker story might be a useful discipline.

    It is! I recommend it!

    I particularly liked the idea that hardly anyone would have written about the story. This would make me depend on myself – like any armchair reader. But trying to say something cogent – that, I found, takes time. And I discovered that it was often not until I hit the “Submit” button that I noticed something in error with my expression or ideas. That is surely a lesson in discipline!

    It is the high ambition with which you have structured the blog that makes writing a comment for you a worthwhile experience. You aim high, so the rest of us do, too. With many thanks!

  8. Trevor says:

    I was thrilled to get to it yesterday, too, Betsy! I couldn’t remember when you first appeared on the site, and then I got to this story and it all came back.

    Thanks for jumping in that day (nearly four years ago!) and for staying aboard since. You’ve added a great deal to the site, making this a real pleasure.

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