was born in Oakland, grew up in various small towns in California’s
Central Valley, and attended film school at the University of Southern
California. He has, among other jobs, edited the heavy-metal
In 2009 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. His novel This Wicked World
was published in June, also by Little, Brown.
with Richard Lange
"He was full of shit and worse, but
then who among us wasn't? I was rooting for him. We all were."
Reviewed by Scott Doyle
Lange walks a lot of tightropes in Dead
between genre and literary, hope and despair, jadedness and
wonder, sentiment and sentimentality. Most of the time he walks these
thin lines successfully. The result is a singular new voice in fiction
that weds the directness and muscle of noir with the nuance and
ambiguity of literary fiction.
The stories are very much of a
piece, and though I’ll single out a few, mostly it makes sense to talk
about them that way. One of the few negative reviews of the collection
(which has brought Lange a good deal of praise, as well as a Guggenheim
Fellowship) accuses the stories of bleeding into one another. In this
case that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the larger world the
author evokes, along with the distinctive mood he sets, is a character
A big part of that world is the city of Los Angeles,
and Lange’s take on this big, messy, complicated town owes something to
the noir tradition, and also to Nathanael West; but it feels fresh all
the same. It would be easy but glib and wrong to describe the author’s
terrain as the "underbelly" or even the "periphery" of the popular
conception of LA. Yes, crime and drugs and prostitution intrude or at
least threaten in many of these stories. One character lives in a dicey
motel complex; another, down to his last dollar, is forced to crash and
dry out in his childhood home. But many of Lange’s narrators (all male,
all first person) have families, of one sort or another, they are
trying to hold together. Most are working class, piecing together odd
jobs, trying imperfectly to make ends meet. For them, Hollywood and
glamorous LA are the periphery.
That said, it is admirable how
Lange refuses to indulge gratuitously in the sordidness that so-called
"gritty urban fiction" is sometimes built around. While the world of
these stories may seem dangerous and uncaring, its characters largely
continue to care, and hope, in their own way. A constant, moving thread
throughout these stories is how unadorned and modest are its
characters’ dreams, how content they are with the simple pleasures and
certainties most of us take for granted. A character who robs banks on
the side doesn’t dream of escape to a tropical island.
"Me, I just want a Subway franchise
somewhere quiet with good schools."
A character, looking back on a stable stretch in his life, remembers
his old neighborhood, and thinks,
"You felt like a citizen there. Our
neighbor was a chiropractor. The
sprinklers were all on timers."
Another character feels comforted driving along LA’s freeways -
"the traffic zipping along in all
four lanes makes me feel I’m actually
part of something that works."
elemental hopes and stripped-down tenderness of the characters is at
times heartbreaking. The hard-boiled quality of the prose allows Lange
to get away with bold splashes of big emotion in a way this reader (who
has limited patience with a certain irony-heavy,
too-cool-to-care-deeply school of fiction) finds refreshing. Though the
character in Love
describes himself as "numb as a tooth," more often than not, that tooth
aches with unexpected emotion. He stares into a fountain in Chinatown:
"The coins people have thrown…
glimmer so hopefully, I almost have to
In that same story, a character who seems caught in a vortex of
hopelessness gets on a roll while shooting pool:
"Circling the table, I ignore the
easy shots and try for miracles, and
I’m on, I can’t miss."
The character drying out at his mother’s house lies in his old bed,
staring out the window:
"The shadows of the trees outside
stroke the ceiling. I put all my
faith in them."
In reading these stories I often found myself thinking of music. I can
only describe Love
a highpoint in the book, as a kind of dirge. It is relentlessly dark,
but beautiful all the same. Another story recalls a nocturne.
Throughout, one thinks of the blues: the pairing of joy and sadness,
mourning and celebration.
That kind of tonal complexity and
ambiguity runs through the collection, both at the sentence level, and
the story level. Lange has a gift for establishing a certain tone, then
undercutting it with a phrase that runs against the grain of the
moment, creating a dissonance that hangs in the air like an unresolved
main character has an epiphany that seems to run entirely counter to
the action of the story, and is all the more effective for it. Another
story rides a comic tone, then unexpectedly turns dark. Yet another
story’s dead-pan despair suddenly turns tender, maybe hopeful.
prose is bracing and vivid. Descriptions often fill in the emotional
blanks of narrators who often aren’t fully aware of what’s going on
"Moths circle the lights in the
parking lot, heroic in their
in most good writing, strong verb choices are key. Fallen leaves school
in the street; the first light of day pearls; the wind steals half of
every lit cigarette.
Though the stylized, hard-boiled quality of
the stories and prose more often than not allows Lange to write
successfully with big sentiment and bold emotion, sometimes his writing
lapses into hyperbole, as when a character feels a paranoia like "an
icicle lodged in my bowels," or another observes how a "river of grief
twisting through me unexpectedly swells and jumps its banks."
times a story is undermined by an excess of sentiment, or by a
broadness of characterization verging on type, or by a device that
doesn’t fully fly.
But I found myself admiring the author even in his occasional missteps.
As I finished the last story I again thought of music. It was like
listening to a CD that isn’t always perfect, but which lays down a
groove you’re reluctant to part with at the end. The temptation is to
press Play and listen to it all over again.