Naughty and Nice
By Bill Kohlhaase
The Christmas foundling is a storytelling staple. “Long Lost,” from Richard Lange’s collection of short stories Dead Boys, is one such tale but without the holiday cheer; a found child story inside a found child story. Spencer Wright, granted one December the dubious gift of a previously unknown half-brother, recalls a Christmas Eve when he was 16 and hitchhiking home “out of trouble somewhere.” A dude with a chocolate cake, a huge bomber, a yen for getting sucked and a pistol gives him a lift. Fleeing the situation through the hummocks of Louisiana, our hero comes upon an infant wrapped in a blanket.
The outcomes remind us it’s not such a wonderful life after all. The relationship with the newfound brother quickly spins out of control. On their first meeting in a Skid Row McDonald’s, the brothers end up flipping a coin to see who will smack whom with a pipe, necessitating an emergency room visit. After the stitches, they’ll split the prescribed painkillers. All in the family, you know?
Like most of the characters in Lange’s dark and delicious collection, Spencer wants to make good, wants things to work with his responsible wife, wants to be respectable himself. But things are stacked against him, including his past and persistent kleptomania, a trait he shares with his jailbird brother. Spencer’s desire for normalcy is countered by a wish to be alone. Framed in office Christmas parties, decorated with appearances from aging astronauts and with jealousy hung like mistletoe over everything, “Long Lost” deserves to become something of a Christmas classic, though not of the God-bless-us-everyone sort.
Lange’s neighborhood is the shady side of sunny Los Angeles, the wide margins populated by crack heads, bar-flys, strippers and ex-cons. From a distance, the city maintains its famous glossy haze though Lange interprets the sparkle a bit differently. “A few years ago, when the city spruced up [Hollywood],” says Spencer, “they mixed something sparkly into the asphalt used to repave the street. When the sun hits it, it looks like broken glass, like you’d cut yourself if you stumbled. And they wonder why there are so many lunatics around here. Even the ground beneath their feet seems to have turned against them.”
These stories are full of such strong, suggestive images as well as characters that can’t quite seem to get their footing. One guy is anxious to pull his wife and kid into a safer neighborhood just as soon as he and his buddies pull their last armed bank robbery. Another looks forward to his promotion in the restaurant sales business but can’t help become obsessed about his slutty sister’s rape. In “Culver City,” a place “south and east of everything worth anything in LA,” a guy’s shiftless girlfriend comes into the possession of some photos of “a famous young actor doing things with a famous older actor” and thinks she can parlay her find into big bucks. The boyfriend, who takes care of her little son while she parties, knows trouble when he sees it.
Lange’s addled, low-life tales of Southern California suggest a Charles Bukowski for the painkiller generation. But there’s a difference. While Bukowski’s alter egos were so far in the bottle even a genie couldn’t pull them out, Lange’s characters believe that something better, like a cork, is about to pop. Call the difference “hope.”
Silly them. There’s always too much stacked against them, too much wrong in their past, too much obsessive violence or thievery or drug usage in their behavior to grant them success. Still you can’t help liking Lange’s boys even when their worst traits are showing. And you can’t help but be disappointed when failure looms.
Even those with seemingly respectable lives can’t resist their shortcomings. The men in the book’s title story are corporate employees coordinating a print campaign for a new yogurt. They also keep porno in their desks, smoke pot in the stairways and air out their manhood in the elevator “just to do it.” The main character’s wife, constantly out of town, is more successful than he and probably cheating on him. The isolation found in work cubicles, strip clubs and cookie-cutter apartments is palpable.
Lange seems to suggest that an honest low-life of the sort everyone in the other stories tries to resist is preferable to the silent grief of meaningless responsibility. “Cheap, wine, crack, lies loudly told—these are the bonfires that keep the wolves at bay,” Spencer declares on his pre-Christmas trip to Skid Row. About the best these conflicted characters can do, after plotting the next stickup, is to go home and barbecue burgers in the backyard with the wife and kids. What could be better?
Dead Boys: Stories by Richard Lange; Little, Brown, hardback, 241 pages, $21.99