Midway through this ticking time bomb of a short-story collection about the attempted middle class, a young screenwriter receives advice from a pal of his rich, lubricated uncle: "Get in good with the schnozolas. Otherwise you're fucked."

I didn't catch all of that the first time through Jim Gavin's Middle Men (Simon & Schuster, 240 pages, $23). But, then again, this is a book about double takes.

The half-gassed irrigation-magnate uncle, hyping his Hollywood-bound nephew regarding a movie idea based on a buried-by-bourbon recollection of Arnold Schwarzenegger's magnum opus, Predator, is one of the thoroughly modern saints, savants and schmucks brought to ghastly and often weirdly endearing light in Middle Men.

The first story is about a scholarship-seeking basketball player with "a concave chest" from a poor Long Beach, Calif., family who spends endless hours practicing only to score six points and commit 12 turnovers in a championship game. He's left to feel "a miraculous sense of relief because I knew it was all over, my future."

Which sets the tone. This book about servitude to famous game-show hosts, cancer, Catholicism, Del Taco, the depths and limitations of Costco lasagna, and mania—plus delusions pathetic and otherwise (check out "Man Handle")—stars haplessly ambitious white former athletes in the 15-to-30 demographic. Gavin's lost boys tend to chase post-locker-room success the way a donkey with a carrot-dangling fishing pole on his back chases lunch. Gavin's best walk-on characters, on the other hand, are Larry, a middle-aged black sales manager, and Nora, a leggy, loony yuppie software sales vamp.

As the son of a broke traveling salesman who is now a broke salesman himself muses, if he doesn't inherit money from his father, at least his dad will leave him the freeways.

Gavin, 36, came out of nowhere with "Costello," his stunning debut story in The New Yorker, after spending years managing a gas station. He's target specific: naming every other bad bar and desolate street in Orange County, while also being hyper-funny and horrifying as he recounts tales of booze-brained toilet salesmen and assistants to assistants to Alex Trebek. His details—Nora's take on a relentlessly optimistic, young blond gofer: "Jill embodied the kind of forthright striving Nora associated with Viking oarsmen."—and documentary intimacy make his characters seem less like characters than real people accidently trapped inside a book.

READ: Mark Christensen is the author of Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD and the Politics of Ecstasy.