Editor's Blog

Joseph Wakelee-Lynch

Revisiting the Chickenpox

February 19, 2013

This past Friday, Feb. 15, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about “Middle Men,” a new collection of short stories by Jim Gavin ’88. The piece was written by David L. Ulin, the paper’s book critic.

Gavin attended the well-regarded master’s-level creative writing program at Stanford University not long ago. I learned about him in 2007, when I was trying to put together a feature story of LMU Magazine’s predecessor, Vistas. The feature was composed of essays by six writers on the subject “The Persistent Power of the Written Word,” and it included three well-known L.A. writers: Lynell George ’84, one of L.A.’s best essayists, Brian Helgeland ’87, one of the film industry’s best screenwriters, and Denise Hamilton ’81, one of the city’s best novelists. We also published Cecilia González-Andrieu ’80, ’01, professor of theological studies and a fine columnist on topics religious, and Patrick Furlong ’06, who was keeping a fascinating blog about his experiences doing service work in Ecuador. The only fetter I roped the writers with was the theme itself. I encouraged them to write what they wanted.

Gavin was the only one of the six about whom I held no preconceptions. That meant I was taking a bit of a gamble. But he had been awarded the Wallace Stegner Fellowship while at Stanford, and I certainly knew who Stegner was, along with his work. Stegner is one of the U.S. novelists whose work I most admire. If Gavin was deemed worthy of an award named for one of the great writers rooted in the West, then he probably belonged in the Vistas feature. (You could say that hunch was a pretty good one: A short story he wrote called “Costello,” which is in his new collection, was published in the New Yorker magazine Dec. 6, 2010.)

My biggest fear in the project was that one essay would be weaker than all the others. Fortunately, none were weak, and Gavin’s was quite strong. A line I particularly liked was “I suddenly wanted to be a writer, which is different, of course, from actually wanting to write.” That one sentence conveys ideas, explicitly and implicitly, that could easily take three, maybe four, sentences to make obvious. I remember that when the issue was completed, I looked forward to what Gavin would produce, and I hoped the burden of receiving a fellowship with Stegner’s name on it wouldn’t be a heavy one. I haven’t picked up “Middle Men” yet, but I always look forward to reading a writer who wants to actually write.

Here’s Gavin’s 2007 piece in Vistas:

The Chickenpox

“In Joyce Cary’s ‘The Horse’s Mouth,’ Gulley Jimson, painter and felon, counsels a young man who claims he wants to be an artist: “Of course you do. Everybody does once. But they get over it, thank God, like the measles and the chickenpox.”

“I guess you could say I caught the chickenpox at LMU. I had entered my freshman year as a communication studies major, but after a few classes I realized the strange and hermetic concepts of that discipline — situational dyads, belief congruency, adaptive structuration — were beyond the limits of my understanding. I spent most of my freshman year playing basketball and Ping-Pong in the pungent hollows of the old Alumni Gymnasium.

“I also met some great friends, members of that bright, lazy and morbidly curious apprentice class who graze in the shadows at every university. We traded books, records, movies; the more obscure the better. I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself when I got to LMU, but whatever it was, I was drifting happily away from it. This type of ‘awakening,’ I suspect, is all too common and probably represents a threat to the prosperity of our nation.

“In any case, I eventually stumbled on a copy of ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ by Thomas Pynchon. I knew nothing of the author or the book, but it seemed to jump off the shelf, like it had been waiting for me. Pynchon’s grand and looping narrative was also beyond my understanding, but beautifully so, instilling the ordinary world with a vivid and enduring sense of mystery. In pursuit of this mystery, I finally retreated, like so many vain and romantic young men, to the English department.

“Inspired by many excellent professors, my symptoms got worse. I suddenly wanted to be a writer, which is different, of course, from actually wanting to write. At this giddy stage, being a writer somehow means drinking rum in sultry foreign capitals and showing up for the occasional honorary banquet. The blank page, the empty room, the freighted hours — such horrors never cross the mind.

“Thankfully, in the coming years, as my illusions faded, I still found myself carving out time to sit down and put together sentences. Whether or not I ever become a writer, I am going to write. The condition is terminal.”