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In his introduction to this year's Best American Short Stories, editor Stephen King laments that the American short story is alive, but not well. Too much competition from film, too many alternative ways to tell brief stories. If that's not enough, magazines like Tin House and Glimmer Train are tucked away in the bottom shelf of the bookstore. One imagines the increasingly aged devotee of short fiction pondering the risks of a pulled muscle before stooping to peruse. It's becoming increasing harder to get short fiction published, print runs are depressingly small, and, worst of all, the audience is increasingly being reduced to other writers, editors, and teachers of "creative writing". The result is that even those stories that do get published don't satisfy King's demand that a short story should firstly tell a story. They are too heavy on artifice and allusion; the authors are writing for authors, not readers.
If King is right about the health of the short story he can't blame the author of Dead Boys, Richard Lange. The twelve stories in his debut collection have the raw power of a stray bullet, probably fired by one of Lange's desperate, depressed characters, high on speed or unhinged from the lack of it. They are definitely not written to please the teacher of a writing program; they are occasionally harsh, sometimes reflective, always stripped down and straight to the point. The stories are all set in LA, and although there are a few glimpses of the Hollywood lifestyle, they are fragments only. Lange's focus is on the bad side of Sunset Boulevard, where if you want a view you have to paint it on the concrete wall of the apartment outside your window. The protagonist of the poignantly-titled Everything Beautiful Is Far Away does exactly that, musing that "Everybody has the right to something nice". These are stories of lives all but devoid of hope, of relationships derailed as easily as changing a TV channel, of needles and the damage done.
Lange's protagonists are men, on the whole. They nurse memories of loss and abandonment. They live for the next job, legal or illegal. They don't expect their current relationship will continue and mostly, they're right. If Lange's men seek redemption, and many seem to regard such an idea of one more humiliating hoax, they seek it in a fortuitous and unlikely change in circumstances, rather than in any change in themselves. The world has hurt them, and most don't have the resources to make a life; they live not only with their past, but in their past.
The prose of these stories is as stark as the lives depicted. Take the first line from Telephone Bird: "In a decent world, losing the car would have been the last knot in that particular string of bad luck". In The Hero Shot a man is evicted from his apartment, it's raining, and he's down to his last fifty. He's playing the hard man, but he wants a break, and there's something plaintive in his plea: "A good idea, a fresh start. Something. Anything. Please." In Long Lost another man, increasingly distant from his wife, notices an aging astronaut at a stand in a shopping mall, ignored by mothers more intent on getting Polaroid snaps of the kids with Santa. Here is a man who is Somebody, but he's ignored anyway, and if Lange's protagonist can muster the energy, he'll "get up off this bench and ask him why my hands feel like they belong to somebody else." Amongst the gloom there are a few bright rays, such as this observation in the title story: "I recall a sunrise like that in Hawaii. Something like that can save your life if you use it later, when you need it." The hint that it might pay to hang on to something good does more than enough to suggest it's not likely to last.
One of Lange's strong suits is atmosphere, and it never lets up. Whether the setting is a motel room, a bar, a convenience store, or a second hand car lot, Lange puts you there, and makes sure you take notice. Often, you'd like to be somewhere else, but Lange doesn't let his readers off the hook. Lange's is an urban landscape of concrete and glass, lit by sodium lamps and flashing police lights. It's like he's determined to show you the bad side of the city, and you're not going home until you've seen it all.
Everything in these stories happens with an amphetamine-fuelled intensity. There were a few times when it seemed just a little overdone, as in this line from Telephone Bird: "Water screamed out of the tap and thudded into the kettle". Apart from the contrast in sounds, presumably heard at the same time, I wanted to tell Lange "I already get that you're on edge." There is also a sense that Lange's main characters are not sufficiently distinguished from story to story. They speak and act in closely similar ways; share important personality flaws, and have similar life trajectories. Although Lange builds a colorful cast around them it would be more rewarding if this complexity of character was shared by the main characters across the range of stories. It may be that a collection brought together from stories published separately over a number of years suffers by having each story up against two others. Individually, these stories would add an element of plain-spoken danger to most literary publications.
Authors like Richard Lange deserve that Stephen King's diagnosis of the American short story is wrong. Writing of this urgency deserves to be read, and read widely. I've never understood the attraction of the airport blockbuster. Why risk an extra baggage charge for a bloated over-told mystery, war saga, or historical romance? Why not a collection of sharply told short stories? If they were Richard Lange's you could be sure you'd be awake for the in-flight meal. Probably best recommended as you leave LA, rather than as you fly in, especially if you scare easily.
© 2007 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: email@example.com