Dead Boys
by Richard Lange

Little, Brown 2007

first collection? No

Richard lange 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 magazine RIP.  In 2009 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.  His novel This Wicked World was published in June, also by Little, Brown.

Read an interview 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

Richard Lange walks a lot of tightropes in Dead Boys: 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 in itself.

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."
The 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 Lifted Me 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 turn away."
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 Lifted Me, 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 chord.

In Fuzzyland the 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.

The 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 inside.
"Moths circle the lights in the parking lot, heroic in their single-mindedness."
As 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."

At 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.

Read Fuzzyland, a story from this collection on the Hatchette Book Group website.  

Scott Doyle lives in Los Angeles and writes mainly short fiction.  In print he has a story in the recent issues of New Madrid and River Oak Review, and forthcoming in Confrontation.  Online he has stories in 580 Split, Sotto Voce, and Night Train.  He is at work on a novel-in-stories. He blogs at

Scott's other Short Reviews: Alix Ohlin "Babylon and Other Stories"

Axel Thormahlen "A Happy Man"

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