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.”
Lange ended up getting a scholarship to USC’s film school. He worked 32 hours a week at the supermarket near campus to support his schooling.
“Which was humiliating, you know? These frat boys would come in and be, like, ‘Hey, there’s that punk-rock kid from school.’ And I was bagging their groceries for them. That was a great experience, though. I always say I learned as much working there as I ever learned in school.”
He found he didn’t really love the sort of writing he was doing at film school.
“I got to film school and I didn’t realize it was so collaborative and that you had to work with so many people,” he says. “I didn’t realize that I would hate that so much and I started taking writing classes. You know, I’d always been writing. As a kid I’d write books. I’d write novels when I was in high school. Science-fiction stuff. I never did anything with them, but then when I came to USC I started taking writing classes with T.C. Boyle. You know he taught there.”
Lange says Boyle was the first guy who told him he might have what it takes. So, he started wailing away at short stories. He also tried a novel in his 20s, which, he says, “really sucks.”
After graduating in 1984, Lange, like so many fine-writers of his generation, got a job working for Flynt Publications. Lange was the managing editor of the heavy-metal magazine R.I.P. under editor Lonn Friend. I’m not kidding about the fine writers thing, either. Jerry Stahl, Evan Wright and others also got their start with Flynt. If there’s a subplot to the Los Angeles literary scene, it may be that. But Lange’s reasons for going there were a little more pedestrian.
“It was the only publishing job besides the Weekly, so it was one of the only publishing jobs that sort of paid well,” he says. “All these people were coming into it . Very talented, smart and quick people, and they were all super funny and a little sick. I loved it. It’s still the best job I ever had. The people there were so cool.”
During that time, Lange returned to writing short stories and submitted them relentlessly.
“I was always one of those guys who sent out. I never just kept my stuff to myself. I wanted to get published,” he says. “So I always wrote with that idea of getting published, and I was getting rejected and rejected. I had all these rules I put on myself, like, I wasn’t going to write first person, because I thought it was too easy. Finally I just threw them all out the window and sat down and wrote a first-person story, which, you know, all the stories in the book are first-person. Once I went back to doing that, which is what I like to do, it started happening. I got published. I think I was, like, 33 or 34 and I had my first story published in a little college literary magazine. You know, it’s true what they say, once you get one, once they see that credit, they’ll start [coming to you].”
To make a long story grossly short, an agent found Lange, a bidding war started between Knopf and Little, Brown, the two most highfalutin houses in the business, predicated on coming up with a novel to follow the collection, and here he is now. None of which explains the joy of reading this unlikely batch of stories about folks with one foot in despair and the other fumbling for a way out. There’s a deep, deadpan melancholy, if there can be such a thing, in Lange’s writing that gives this collection a sort of unity, setting it firmly on the edge of a life where the disappointments are large and the victories fleeting. The voice is so strong and so authentic, I wonder how they came from this cheerful guy in front of me.
“You know, I get depressed like everybody else, but I’m not that guy,” says Lange. “But I see it and, like, I feel it. Maybe it’s just that I’m so scared of it. Because I think the things that I write about are the things I’m most scared of. Like, I don’t want to live in a motel in the Valley. I’ve been poor. It fucking sucks. I want to do better. So, now, finally, I’m getting to do what I want to do and it’s like a miracle for me. I never thought it would happen. Especially, you know, you get to be 40 years old and you’re, like, eh fuck it.”
Lange’s novel, This Wicked World, is a potboiler set in the dog-fighting and small-time hoodlum subcultures of L.A. and its exurbs. The book follows in the stylistic and thematic wakes of such recent SoCal detective noirs as Kem Nunn’s excellent Tijuana Straits and Don Winslow’s Dawn Patrol (whose protagonist, like This Wicked’s, is named Boone — must be something in the smog). Lange, like his predecessors, hones in on a literary landscape where even the most humble immigrants’ dreams come to die brutally under a relentless sun, and where badass white boys assume the burden of atonement with the help of their rainbow-coalition sidekicks. While This Wicked World is definitely a page turner that gets under your skin, it’s more entertainment than art. Lange was keenly aware of the difference when writing it.
“It’s a lot different. It’s a lot harder. The [short] stories are kind of natural and organic,” he says. “This one, you’re hitting beats, because it has a plot. So, suddenly I’m writing to hit these beats and it’s really super hard, a hard experience.”
Lange says he’ll follow up his novel with another set of stories, but he won’t be revisiting any of the characters from Dead Boys. He won’t have to. This is, after all, Los Angeles.
“I can take a walk down the street and come up with a story. One day, I can get a story out of a trip to here, just by looking around and combining it with things I know. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of ideas where I need to go back,” he says. “I love this city. When I moved here when I was 17, I said, ‘This is my place.’ … It suits me perfectly.”