Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Dead Boys - Richard Lange

Since the 1980's, Raymond Carver has dominated the short story market. He died in 1989. Nobody gets namedropped half as much. He was nicknamed "the Chekhov of the suburbs." He is regarded as one of the few recent major modern American writers. This is probably because his work is quite even. There appear to be no missteps, no poorly regarded works, no ill-considered books. He could seemingly do no wrong. Flash forward, ten, fifteen years after his death. His stamp is all over college and graduate writing programs. Everybody wants to be him.

I only mention that because two of the blurbs for Dead Boys invoke Carver (but they also include Denis Johnson). Richard Lange's work does have a bit in common with both of them. The stark style, the "grittiness." But beyond marketing techniques, once you get down to the actual stories, it's clear that Lange has his own slightly skewed brand of originality that Carver and Johnson both employed and employ.

There are very few weak spots in the book. The only story that took me a while to get through was the opener, "Fuzzyland," which is probably the longest story in the book. Okay that's not true. "Bank of America" and "Long Lost" are just as if not slightly longer. But "Fuzzyland" is the most content to meander along harmlessly. It's about a salesman whose younger sister has just been raped and how he and his wife drive from L.A. down to her area of San Diego and stay with her for a weekend and go to Tijuana while a fire continues to bear down on the area near her condo. There are some good moments in it, and it is by no means a dull story, but it may be one of the weaker ones in the collection. But I feel really bad saying that.

"Bank of America" is the second story and it is about a painter who robs banks in his spare time while being a totally normal husband and father at the same time. All of the stories in this collection are first person. This is one of the more notable ones.

"The Bogo-Indian Defense" is about a group of older guys who hang out at a donut shop and play chess. Then one of them dies and one of them gives the narrator the task of returning the ashes to an estranged daughter in Downey. All of these stories take place in the Los Angeles region.

"Long Lost" is an especially bizarre piece about two brothers that meet for the first time over Christmas. I particularly liked this story because the main couple lives in Silverlake and invites the brother to stay with them there.

"Telephone Bird" is where the collection starts to pick up, in my opinion. From here to the end, the stories seem to get better and better. The main character here lives in a boarding house and works as a temp at a gas company while all the other workers are on strike. There is a bird that sounds like a telephone ringing that keeps him up at night. There are other residents of the boarding house that act as extras in a zombie movie. Another one of them is a law school dropout who is mentally unstable.

"Culver City" is about a troubled marriage between a man who takes dying pets away to be put to sleep and a coffee shop waitress who supposedly hangs out with Hollywood celebrities and finds a picture of gay sex that she hopes to use to blackmail the actors in question for $100,000. They also have a son. The husband is sure that the picture will only cause more trouble, and it does.

"Love Lifted Me" may be one of the best stories in the collection. It is about an alcoholic guy living in a motel in Van Nuys who hang outs with/protects a 16-year-old meth addict who is engaged to a guy named Eightball, whose father comes into town for their wedding. Also, the main character is haunted by the ghost of his wife, who jumped off the highway overpass where the Hollywood, Harbor and Pasadena freeways intersect. When they drive over to the county courthouse, the car breaks down, and they end up walking into Chinatown. And the main character thinks he meets a postal worker at a bar who likes him. It's a crazy story.

"Loss Prevention," like "Bank of America" is probably the most "blockbuster" story in this bunch. It is about a new security guard trainee at a Chinese-run grocery store and his friend who is a recovered drug addict and loves to listen to Neil Young. They half-confront a lady who is shoplifting and then are later faced with a harrowing situation.

"The Hero Shot" is about a guy who moved to L.A. when he was young to try to make it as an actor, got one speaking role, two lines, received a lot of encouragement, but eventually served out his time in the city with no more breaks. He goes home to live with his widowed mother. He sells his old comic books for $500. His brother lives down the street from his mom and never visits. This is another very-affecting piece.

"Blind-Made Products" is named for the factory where the narrator's blind ex-girlfriend used to work. The story is mainly about helping a friend named Dee Dee move to a new apartment where they then have a pretty cool party and then run out into the desert to set fire to her car. Another very energetic, memorable story.

"Everything Beautiful is Far Away" -- I don't remember what it is about off the top of my head. Let me check. Oh yeah, it's about the guy who is stalking his ex-girlfriend named Lana and works at a newsstand. This is another especially bizarre story that works to incredible dramatic effect. Also he lives in a bachelor unit and paints the brick wall that is his only view into a beach scene.

"Dead Boys," the title story, is also arguably the best story in the collection. It features the most writing about "the workplace" and slim, yet devastating details about the narrator's concern for a co-worker that he goes to a strip joint with. Thus, the last two paragraphs of the book are extremely powerful. It ends with a bang.

I read this book in two days and didn't really want to have to stop to pause in between. None of the short stories exasperated me. It's hard to review a book of short stories. You have to describe so many different little parts. At least in Jesus' Son the stories are all seemingly tied together by the same main character. Here, some of the main characters may be interchangeable, but they all have distinct little foibles that would be way too disorienting to ever make the case that they were the same person. They are lived in lives. Many of them are borderline alcoholics but few of them toy around with very hard drugs. They are fundamentally decent people. The setting that Lange places them in is the only recurring central character. Anybody who has lived in L.A. will enjoy this book for the all-too-familiar tone of desperation that permeates the city underneath, and anybody who has not lived there will probably enjoy this book and then want to move there to see if it is crazy as Lange makes it out to be. No matter what other weird opinions I have on this book, all of the prose is excellent, and Richard Lange definitely deserves to reach a wider audience. Apparently he is working on a novel now and it will soon be published. I'm definitely looking forward to it.

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