To paraphrase the compliment Joan Didion paid Fat City, Leonard Gardner’s classic 1969 novel set in Stockton, California, Richard Lange has got it right about Los Angeles. Dead Boys, his debut story collection, depicts average Southland life with unfaltering exactitude— the doughnut shop–cum-hangout, the sun’s merciless routine, Spanglish, and the disconsolateness of the carless. Such meticulously drawn commonplace scenery is remarkable in itself. But what’s most impressive about Lange’s tales is how his LA bypasses the usual accounts of nihilism and dystopia to signify instead the hard-luck optimism of the losers who are drawn to it.
Lange’s down-and-outs daydream endlessly, but their fantasies are grounded. A typical ambition is middle-class stability. That’s what the parolee wants in “Long Lost,” when he looks up his straight-arrow half brother at Christmastime. Yet he discovers that his sibling isn’t what he seems: This happily married nine-to-fiver has a habit of boosting register-display items just to feel the outlaw’s rush. “You ever see a shrink?” the ex-con suggests, hinting at their shared history of abandonment and implying that subsistence and routine should not be taken for granted.
Men who are perhaps overly conscious of their departed youth narrate these stories, and the book’s title refers as much to their former selves as to the dead children mentioned offhandedly in their anecdotes. Their voices, uniformly worldweary, occasionally sound too much alike, which dilutes their force. It is a distracting flaw, in part because the grizzled insights they mutter are otherwise precisely expressed. Like Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel, Lange is able to phrase a highly specific emotion or state of mind compactly (“I don’t want to be one of those people who need to get to the bottom of things”), but his sentences are rangier, spackled with oddly beautiful imagery pieced together from unlikely materials. In describing a men’s bathroom, for instance, one of his characters sees that “a fresh coat of paint covers the piss blisters pocking the metal divider between the urinals.”
Through playful, earthy language, Lange continually reminds us that our particular perspective determines our outlook. In fact, the author is especially adroit at sudden reversals of viewpoint: “He grabs my hand and kisses it. It’s one of those moments when you wish you weren’t always watching yourself from across the room.” Lange has a flair for seamy comedy, and while he sometimes imbibes too liberally from Bukowski’s flophouse trough, there is no doubt that on the shopworn territory of literary Los Angeles, he has mapped entirely new topography.