The stories in Jim Gavin’s debut collection, Middle Men, are darkly comedic accounts of defeat.

A second-rate teenage basketball player, a Meals on Wheels driver and a toilet salesman, among others, aspire to reach beyond mediocrity in love and work and play. But failure, that great leveler, always fences them in.

Gavin, a New Yorker contributor and Stegner Fellow, uses the Southern California landscape he knows best as the setting for his stories. “Elephant Doors,” for example, is the story of a production assistant named Adam who moonlights as a standup comic in smog-obscured Los Angeles. He’s praised for the mundane work he does at his day job, but gets blank stares from the crowd at El Goof when he completes his three-minute comedy routine. As he shares advice with an equally undistinguished fellow comedian, Adam reflects on the sharp contrast between the two competing versions of himself, “the young fraud and the old pro.” He wishes for “some blessed third version of himself, the middle man, who could bridge the gap,” but he sees “no trace of himself in the darkness.”

Others in this collection, however, are so deeply entrenched in the mundane that they no longer realize it. The title story focuses on a disillusioned son and his father, whose only goal after Vietnam was “to work someplace with air-conditioning.” The 30-year-old son, who is broke and living at home, decides to take a job in toilet sales at the same company where his father is considered a “plumbing lifer.” The story of this father-son duo is at once funny, heartwarming and sad; it shows how grief can steal life from the living. It also shows how a messed-up ballcock order can ruin a sales rep’s entire year.

Late-night visits to Del Taco and caretakers who look after the dying surface repeatedly in this collection, as do plumbers, Irish Catholics and the marginally insane. In their very ordinariness, Gavin’s characters appeal to anyone who’s ever glanced at the grass on the other side of the fence and admired its greenness. They’d fly over that fence if they could—but like most of us, they can’t quite launch on demand.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

Middle Men: Stories

By Jim Gavin

Simon and Schuster

240 pages, $23