"Costello" by Jim Gavin Originally published in the December 6, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.
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.