Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A review of Dead Boys by Richard Lange

This article was first published at Compulsive Reader.

Lives of noisy desperation might not be a bad description of the characters that people the twelve stories in Richard Lange’s debut collection, Dead Boys. At best they are people who get by at dead end jobs they despise, at worst they wallow in misery in drugs and alcohol. They live in shabby apartments in run down neighborhoods where a child’s wading pool can’t even be left out in the yard over night. They live in sleazy motels where the desk clerk sits caged behind bullet proof glass and the room next door echoes with prostitutes plying their trade. More often than not their marriages have failed or are failing. They are as like as not estranged from their families. If they have friends, male or female, those friends are likely to be as miserable as they are if not worse. Their hopes and their dreams, if they still have them, are bubbles just about ready to burst. All of this is to say: the world of Dead Boys is not what you would call a pleasant place to be spending your life.

These are helpless people caught up in the web of a deterministic universe: they wriggle and they writhe, they moan and they complain, but they cannot escape, Most of them have given up even trying. Here’s one of his narrators (all twelve stories have first person narrators) forecasting his future: "Christina’s sister will crash at my apartment for a few days, and it will be fun and all, but we’ll finally come to our senses. I’ll tell her to leave, and she’ll try to stab me with a broken tequila bottle. After that I’ll be lonely for a good long while, but then things will get better. I’ll find a job, lose it, find another. A few years form now I’ll come into enough money to take a trip to Hawaii. I will not enjoy it." In another story, the narrator’s relationship with his wife is described as running in circles as he waits for her to come home from some party where he’s sure she’s seeing someone else. In a third story the narrator is haunted by the memory of his wife who jumped from a highway bridge. He blames himself for her suicide, and he blames her ghost for everything that has gone wrong in his life since–everything from his car breaking down to his inability to keep a decent pair of shoes. "She wants me to suffer, and I have obliged, but the price of peace remains a mystery." There is no peace for any of the people in these stories.

They are set for the most part in Los Angeles, but although there are the stars on the Walk of Fame and every once in awhile someone gets a view of the Hollywood sign, they might as well take place on another planet. The L.A. Lange describes is "a rough neighborhood, graffiti twisting like angry black vines up the sides of the buildings, half the streetlights shot out," where the grocery market is a "windowless bunker that’s been tarted up with a thin coat of hot pink paint." In the meat department pig snouts are on sale, and "a fly that’s succumbed to the cold lies belly-up on the hamburger." The dining spots of choice are Macdonalds and donut shops. Far from the Beverly Hills Hotel, Lange’s people step into lobbies where "a few men are hunched on the spavined couches, rapt before a silent television chained to a shelf up near the ceiling." The man next to you smells like "yeast and moth balls." The hotel sits on streets that the "sun never quite reaches. . . .and those who have chosen to live in this constant twilight collide with those who have no choice and those who are simply, in one way or another, lost." Forget maps to the homes of the stars: "The sky out this way is a map of hell–blood and fire and gristly bruised clouds." This is not red carpet; this is filthy motel shag.

Society’s dregs caught in the lower depths–there was a time, over a hundred years ago now, when this kind of thing was innovative and startling, scandalous even, for an author to turn to the social under belly for his subject matter. This was the time of Emile Zola and novels like "Nana," of Stephen Crane and his Maggie. That time has long gone, taken the last of the exits to Brooklyn. Authors have long since freed themselves from the confines of the genteel and the socially acceptable. There is no class of people, no actions of these people, no language to describe them and their actions that has not been mined for it potential ore. There is a good deal of ugliness in the world and it has been a long time since writers have chosen to ignore it.

Given this truism, it isn’t saying much about the quality of Lange’s stories to say they are gritty pictures of the seamier side of life in glamorous L.A. To say this is merely to place them in a tradition, what gives them their life and their power is the author’s ability to create characters, who despite their many failures and flaws, despite their depravities and cruelties, can still manage to stimulate a reader’s compassion. Sometimes they can even seem likeable. To take weak, unpleasant, and even evil characters and have your reader coming away perhaps finding something to like in them, this is no mean feat.

All the first person narrators are flawed in some way. They drink away their problems. They subject themselves to faithless women. They take advantage of friends and relatives. They blind themselves with illusions. Yet listening to them is much like sitting at a bar next to a slightly tipsy stranger rambling on about his life and loves in the pleasant glow of a warm buzz. You know deep down he’s only a seedy drunk, but you can’t help kind of liking him. So when the narrator of "Bank of America" talks about robbing banks to set up a nest egg for his family, the last thing you do is make moral judgments. He seems like such a nice guy, he just wants "a Subway franchise somewhere quiet with good schools." When the narrator of "Blind-Made Products" describes how he treats his blind girlfriend at first, you can almost forgive him the way he treats women in general, if not quite his slimy treatment of her at the end of their affair. It’s not that his drunks and his dopers are loveable, it’s just that they’re all too human. And if they are bad, and they are, there are so many others that are worse.

Moreover, they speak so well. They are nothing if not articulate. Sometimes one has to wonder if they are perhaps not too eloquent, if their descriptive abilities are a bit too articulate.

The speaker in "Blind-Made Products" talks about the difficulty he has trying to describe things to his blind girl friend. Yet he doesn’t seem to have any problem describing things to the reader.

A drawer full of panties is "arrayed like the lustrous black and blue and red pelts of small exotic creatures." He talks about the hands of blind people preparing their coffee as "seeming to have an intelligence of their own." A sheet of black plastic blowing up against a car’s windshield "flaps and billows in the wind like and ugly ghost." And he is not the only narrator with the gift of language. They all seem to have it. Razor wire looks like the skeleton of a snake chewing on its own tail, according to the security guard telling the story of "Loss Prevention." In "Telephone Bird," the narrator describes a marihuana high: "How nicely th couch cradled me then, like the softest cloud. I lost touch of the game, charting the snaky creep of darkness across the rug and up the wainscoting. The black tide slopped over onto the wallpaper, drowning the roses row by row, and I was right there when it reached the ceiling, the only witness as night overtook us."

Sometimes the figurative language echoes the kind of fanciful indulgence of the 17th century metaphysical poets: "The rain comes down so hard it cracks the night into a million pieces. All I can see through the windshield is glistening shards of cars and blacktop and the kaleidoscopic whorl of a woman skedaddling across the parking lot." This is brilliant description–literate and precise, but is it appropriate for someone starting on his first night as a security guard in a ghetto market, even if he did go to college? I don’t know what the answer is. I do know I wouldn’t want to lose that gem of description.

Often the author lays a symbolic leitmotif over the narrative. The smoke and ash from an out of control fire that covers everything in "Fuzzyland" parallel the haze and dirt that pervade the character’s lives. The stench from the decaying body of the suicide in Room 210 that fills "Love Lifted Me" is a constant reminder of the decay which surround us all and compliments the running theme of the suicide the narrator’s wife. The bird who mimics the telephone ring with its false promises, the brick wall that the one window of a tiny apartment faces, the action figure of a man who finds out he’s a robot: all develop into significant comments on the narrators and their lives. Perhaps none more so than the running fantasies of Scarlet Johansson in "Loss Prevention." She represents the kinds of dreams that get a lot of people through the smoke and ash covered night," marihuana, alcohol, Scarlet Johansson.

Finally, Lange’s narrators often add a touch of irony to their stories that seems to put things in just the right perspective. When killing a bird brings no divine retribution, the narrator observes: "I knew the disappointment some criminals feel when their most daring transgressions fail to make the papers." Or as he later observes: what’s the good of being crazy if you still feel shame? There is the Yuppie in a dead end job who ends up putting on his ex-con brother’s T-shirt and socks. The narrator of "Love Lifted Me" deflates the Jesus spouting father of a street punk by asking him how long it has been since he’s seen his son. "The guy’s smile goes mushy at the edges," he tells us. "It’s the kind of reaction I was looking for. I’m fucked that way."

On the one hand one might argue that such insights and such literary eloquence in general is out of character for the kinds of people who are supposed to be speaking, yet this has always been the paradox of literary naturalism unless it is presented by some third person observer more literate that the characters described. Not everyone, however, can have a Huck Finn speak like a Huck Finn. After all who wants to read transcripts of the conversations of alcoholics and petty criminals. The real question is does the author manage to get the reader to forget the chasm between the speakers and the way they say what they say. Nothing is duller than the stories of drunks when you’re sober. It is art that makes these drunks interesting. It is art that makes us realize that attention must be paid. And it is the art of Richard Lange that he manages to do just that.

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