Also read: "Devil Rain," a fiction excerpt from the forthcoming novel "This Wicked World" by Richard Lange, to be published by Little, Brown and Company on June 30.
Lately, I’ve been spending time in some pretty far-flung places — Paris, Indochina, the Alps, the Deep South, England, the apocalyptic future (isn’t it always?). You see, I read a lot. So after a steady diet of sprawling novels with fancy conceits and exotic locations, it felt like a sort of homecoming when I stumbled upon Richard Lange’s 2007 short-story collection, Dead Boys. His book brought me back to a Los Angeles I recognize like a long-lost friend. It’s a place of dead-end donut-shop regulars, bleak apartments, last-chance motels and men struggling with present circumstances and past regrets, who, at the end of the day, can often do no more than admit, “Christ, things get away from you.”
Open this book to any page and I’ll bet you find something to thrill you. Let me try. Okay, page 87, from the story “Long Lost.” (I swear I picked this randomly:)
Her name was Tiffany, and I knew from the start we were gonna fuck this up . I was doing a lot of speed and not having much fun. Along comes Tiffany, and her boy, and I don’t know what I was thinking when I thought, Hey, I can do this. I worked in the day and watched the kid at night. We had dinners, man. Kentucky Fried Chicken . Went to the park and Little League on the weekend. You want something like that to work out. You really do.
Of course, it doesn’t work out. Not much does for Lange’s characters; insights are hard-won and don’t necessarily change anything. But I cared very much for these people and their mishaps, and Lange’s sparse, devastating, heart-on-its-sleeve prose feels like an antidote to the metafiction, magical realism, cloying, ironic postmodernism and, yes, even the men playing cavemen with faxes in theme parks that the literary world has fawned over so feverishly for the past decade or more. So, what about this writer, Richard Lange, who can load a world of hurt into a single, well-placed word? Who the hell is he and where the hell did he come from?
Turns out Lange’s been living right here among us in Silver Lake for, oh, several decades. When I call to suggest coffee and a chat, he laughs and says, “What took you guys so long?” I like him already.
We arrange to meet at the Tropical Café and Lange arrives tall and rangy with very short hair and a pretty long beard. He’s dressed mostly in black. With a few uniform tweaks and a couple curly locks, he could easily pass for one of the Orthodox Jews you might see on La Brea Avenue instead of the middle-aged ex–punk rockers and AA types milling about as we take my coffee and his Diet Coke outside. With a disarming smile and an engaging demeanor, Lange seems happy to be in the place he finds himself, like someone who’s seeing the sun after a long time indoors.
“I still feel like I’m pulling a huge joke on everyone,” he tells me. “That I’m able to do this for a living is absolutely insane, and who knows, it might not be forever. If they don’t give me another contract, I’ll probably have to go back to work, which is fine with me. A lot of pressure will be off . This sometimes gets more stressful than having a job.”
They is the venerable Little, Brown and Company, publisher of such notables as Norman Mailer, Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace . it goes on. And theywill most likely give him another contract after his first novel, This Wicked World, comes out at the end of June. But it’s easy to understand how all this could seem a little surreal. After all, Lange’s back-story reads more like a sketch for one of his characters than someone being anointed by the literary establishment.
Lange tells me he grew up knocking around the Valley — San Joaquin, not San Fernando — after his father took off when he was 3. “My mother was married, like, four times,” he says. “We chased around the Valley. Chasing jobs and husbands, around Stockton to Lamont.”
Lange spent his high school years in Morro Bay. If you’ve never been there, picture the beach town in Lost Boys and then subtract the amusement park. You pass by the California Men’s Colony just before hitting town (one reason for the reasonable property values?) and the maximum-security Atascadero State Hospital is just inland, over the hill.
“In high school, you know, there was absolutely nothing to do, so we’d drive down to Morro Bay, to the main Embarcadero, which is that part where the fish restaurants are and shit, and we’d drive up and down there trying to meet girls, tourist girls, and we’d always end up meeting these girls who had come to visit their boyfriends at the Men’s Colony. I was, like, I’m scared, you know,” he says, laughing. “They always turned out to be a little too hard for us. We were just dopey kids.”