“Fuzzyland”, the opening story in Richard Lange’s debut story collection Dead Boys, manages to set up the entire book within two pages. We start with three businessmen, meeting over deli sandwiches to discuss a sale when, out of the clear blue, one of the three (our narrator) blurts out that “some motherfucker” raped his sister. From there, the story has little to do with salesmen and an awful lot to do with the sister’s current self-destructive condition, and just how accurate her claim may or may not be.
Lange is constantly blind-siding us and his characters in the stories that make up Dead Boys. Often taking place in or around rundown apartments or seedy motels, Lange’s stories achieve a Lynchian two-faced quality, where what these characters do behind closed doors goes against their public life. “Bank of America” finds an otherwise responsible family man robbing banks. In “Culver City”, the narrator’s wife is hiding scandalous celebrity pictures in their apartment, hoping to sell them and make their family financially secure. Nearly all of the protagonists in these stories mean well, if not always for those around them then at least for themselves. They don’t mean to destroy themselves as much as they do.
Lange’s characters constantly want to do the right thing, but often they don’t know what the right thing is. They live lives weighed down by mistakes from the past in a present full of booze and pills and relationships where people aren’t so much together next to each other. Lange’s major success in Dead Boys is convincing the reader these people, despite their giant mistakes and bad behavior, are worth caring about.
The empathy he achieves here is not without risk. Lange’s stories are distinct in the way they tackle big plots, plots some may consider too big for short stories. There are giant scenes of violence—we witness an entire store robbery that devolves into a bloody shootout in “Loss Prevention”—and stories run long, moving from scene to scene, often breaking for large spaces of time in between. Lange seems to be unabashedly trying to entertain us here with equal parts straight-razor wit and cacophonic violence, a quality all too absent in the short story writer population, and he is mostly successful.
He smartly eschews wrapping up his intricate plots in favor of getting to the end of his characters’ arcs. In “Loss Prevention”, that the robbery is thwarted and our narrator shot is not the story’s conclusion. Instead, the weight is put on how he handles a relationship with Scarlett Johansson he’s made up in his head. The men in these stories carry the world like a sack of bricks on their back, and Lange spends his time pushing them towards a moment where they can maybe set that sack down, if only momentarily.
While most of these stories are strong, they do take on a sameness when collected together. The narrators are all caustic and self-pitying in much the same way. So while the voices telling us these stories are vital and alive with energy, they are all full of a similar energy, which saps some of the danger from these first-person narratives when read back-to-back. “I’m full to bursting and empty at the same time, like the universe on paper,” the narrator of the title story says, and while this is one of the best stories of the bunch, and the line fits this guy perfectly, it could be said about most of the characters here. Not only that, but it’s a line that could be said by most of these guys.
Still, Lange has a way with those crafty phrases, and Dead Boys is populated with enough of them, alongside flawed and compelling characters, to make it a solid read. He may be playing similar notes throughout the book, but they are distinctly his, and his vision of the seedier bits of L.A. is coursing with the most human of blood. What Dead Boys lacks in variety, it more than makes up for in vitality.