Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Review: Dead Boys.

Richard Lange.
NY: Little, Brown and Company. 2007.
ISBN: 9780316018807

Michael Sedano

Richard Lange doesn't spend much energy on making his characters likeable, or even giving them names. Some of this is obvious from the title. Dead Boys collects twelve lives in that many first person stories. A couple of sympathetic characters, one with a name. Most of the others are drunks, thieves, druggies, paranoids, fools. Not necessarily all at once, but a bit of this and a tad of that are enough to keep a character at arm's length, leaving the reader to smile grimly and think, "what did you expect, happiness?" And not caring enough to want their name.

And here is where the collection gets its punch. That such stories probably do go on all around us, anonymously, fruitlessly, and no one, not even the people living these lives, much gives a hoot. Until one thinks about them, or meets them in fiction.

Lange, or his editor, does a great job of putting the stories together. The two semi-sympathetic characters bookend the other ten stories. First, there's a salesman-in-training, learning the new territory. Good customers nurtured by Big Mike, who's retiring, should be a salesman's dream. But this salesman knows he's going to mess up and lose his big accounts. He's no Willy Loman with a shoeshine and a smile tragedy. Instead, he's trapped in an empty marriage and distracted by his sister's recent rape and dissolving marriage.

Jack is the salesman's name. Lange delays giving him a name until several pages have gone by. In the meantime we observe how Jack's lack of interest in the job is part of his personality, not an artifact of his immediate circumstances. "I'll be stopping in once a month for the rest of my life....Unless I screw up, that is. Which happens. Ask any salesman....Greek tragedies, man. One word too many, one wayward glance, and we are up shit creek."

But "Fuzzyland" is not a salesman story, it's Jack and Liz' descent into hell, down to San Diego where his sister Tracy's house sits in the path of a wildfire, smoke and ashes turning the sky into a lifeless grey to match his sister's self-destruction. "The sun forces woozy red light through the smoke, and it feels later than it is."

They escape the tension of fire and impending evacuation with a trip to Tijuana. Tracy steps out of the bar for a few moments that turn into several hours. When she returns, she's high on prescription drugs, carrying a purseload. Jack begins to believe what her estranged husband tells about the rape; Tracy was wasted in some bar and who knows if there was a rape at all.

They drive back to Tracy's condo, the fire telling the story that none of the characters want to voice. "The entire hillside is ablaze. Tracy's condo is up there somewhere. Flames claw at the night sky, and smoke blots out the stars. I don't even know how you'd begin to fight a thing like that." Jack's thing. Tracy's thing. Helpless people trapped in uncontrollable conditions.

The title story ends the collection. We never learn the character's name. His wife, Louise, is probably cheating on him during frequent out of town business trips, his boss in a P.R. agency, Donna, counts on him to take up the slack during her frequent absences, yet he believes Heidi, the eager assistant, will get Donna's job if she leaves. His drinking buddy and only friend is Adam from accounting. Adam could be a character in one of the other stories, except his tragedy belongs to someone else: he ran over a jogger and killed her two years ago. "I asked Adam about that. 'Of course it changed me,' he said, 'I'd been waiting all my life for an excuse to fuck up.'"

Nothing much happens except Adam goes missing. The dead boy goes through his routines, spreading negativity where he can, thinking bad thoughts about his cheating spouse, grows a funny-looking mustache, coldly reflects on a widower's sorrowful rage. The story ends with a flash of joy at what should be inconsequential news. He's been phoning Adam hourly, "all day long. Finally, he answers....Tears well up in my eyes and get away from me before I can blink them back. 'You're alive,' I sob. 'You're alive.'" Not a bad ending, for a dead boy.

In between the first and last stories, we meet the guy who robs banks in his spare time with a pair of pals. He agrees to quit when the trio's total take hits a goal after one final job. Surprisingly, nothing goes wrong, he retires, and spends the next few weeks jumping at shadows and knocks on the door. Then there's the guy in a bar. When one of the regulars dies, he's elected to take the ashes to Bud's daughter in Downey. Funny how things work out; he romances the daughter, who's been abandoned by her husband, and they may even live happily ever after. Spencer Wright won't be as lucky. We learn his name when his ex-con brother, Karl, shows up for the holidays. His wife, Judy, dials her voicemail. "'Your brother called,' she says. 'I don't have a brother.' 'Merry Christmas.'"

Lange crafts his holiday story with two voices, Karl's and Spencer's, as they alternate personal history with narratives of the long-lost brotherly relationship that grows weirdly dysfunctional. Spencer's paranoia leads him to accuse Karl of wanting to bed Judy. A fistfight ensues and Spencer returns home alone and in a rage. It's Judy's last straw and she makes a clean get away.

Mexicans, specifically, Latinos generally, seem to be Lange's boogeymen. In the first story, the sick sister hits bottom in Mexico, Tijuana's beggar children forming the backdrop for broken pavement and uneven sidewalks that make a rocky road for the struggling tourists. When what's-his-name and Adam are drinking in a strip club, the only other patron is described as a Mexican wearing nice boots. When the "Mexican" leaves, he spits on the floor. The bank robber paints houses with a cheating Nicaraguense boss and holds himself aloof from his fellow painters, a pair of Guatemaltecos. His Cubana wife feels surrounded by crime and the character himself is bothered by Mexican music played too loudly by neighbors. Another character, a magazine rack clerk, allows a Mexican boy from across the street to leaf through the porn magazines.

Los Angeles, Glendale, San Diego settings, naturally, come populated with Latinos, even if they cannot be central characters in a Richard Lange story. But the locals are not necessarily Mexicans. My office was burglarized once and the police put out a description of a short, brown "Mexican male". When I pointed out to the investigator that he not limit his search, the culprit could be Salvadoran, the officer replied, "Well, he's a Mexican from El Salvador, then!" Lange has the same blindness, I think, and I'd urge his editors to tighten up the writer's perception of his city to get better storytelling. It's like when the bank robber accuses El Jefe of being a death squad operative, the employer pays the guy an extra fifty bucks, presumably out of respect.

I have a collection in my to-be-read stack from Akashic, L.A Noir. That might be a great subtitle to Richard Lange's Dead Boys. It's an outstanding collection of well crafted ironies, distended realities, and everyday nightmares. Readers won't shake their heads sadly, wanting to like these characters, or be like them. The reader will instead walk away with a different appreciation for one's own good fortune.

There's the first Tuesday of August! Look for Gregg Barrios' guest column this Saturday, a fascinating column covering the creator of Gonzo journalism, Oscar Acosta, and his sidekick Hunter Thompson. If you always think of Gonzo and Thompson in the same breath, you're sure to enjoy reading Gregg's exploration of the relationship.


Remember, La Bloga welcomes guests, like Gregg Barrios--or you. When you have an interesting article, review, or cultural celebration you'd enjoy sharing here at La Bloga. Leave a comment or click here to email La Bloga to let us know you'd like an invite. Leaving comments on this, or any column, is as simple as clicking on the comment counter below. Click away! La Bloga enjoys and appreciates your comments.

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