June 2, 2020: “Dead Boys” by Richard Lange

Yo yo yo, Story366!

For the first time in ten weeks, my boys left the house and actually went somewhere. Sadly, it was for doctor appointments, just routine stuff, but still, when we were in the waiting room, I realized they hadn’t been anywhere since the shit hit the fan back in mid-March. We’ve been out—on hikes, for rides, through drive-throughs—and I’ve been to a few stores; the Karen, being the journalist, has been all over, practicing social distancing, but still out and about. The boys? Not until today.

It was weird, for sure, to see them sitting there, in masks, on one side of the room, no one else in masks, no one else being particularly careful about how close they go to anyone. Not the staff, not the other patients. When we went to the back to get their vitals taken, it was almost unsettling to be in a small room with a stranger, just some guy, talking to us, putting them on the scale, that sort of thing. When we got in with the doctor—a doctor—it still felt weird, this person, in the same room with us, as if the world wasn’t a different place. The appointments ended and on the way out, my oldest son wanted to get a drink of water from the cooler, the kind with the paper cups in a dispenser on the side (flat-bottomed, not cones). I told him no, to go back to the counter and resanitize his hands, a crumpled, dry cup pushed into his pocket.

We dropped some cookies off at a friend’s house later in the evening and talked to him for a while, him on his porch, us on the lawn. We told him this story about the doctor and he pointed out there are two worlds: The world where everyone has returned to normal life, like at that doctor’s office; the other like at his work and at mine, where employees aren’t allowed in the building yet, where everything’s still Zoom this and email that. He’s right, for sure, two worlds. I wonder when we’ll be completely comfortable moving from one to the other?

Today’s post is on Richard Lange and his book, Dead Boys, out in 2007 from Little, Brown. I had the honor of publishing one of these stories, “Long Lost,” in Mid-American Review back in the day. It’s a fantastic story and also has the designation of being the longest story I ever published in eighteen years at Mid-Am, clocking in at twenty-six pages; I published a lot of shorter short stories. For some reason, I’ve had this book forever, then lost track of it, but saw it resurface recently with a few other books I’ve recently recovered. So, after way too many years, here’s my take on Lange.

The first story, “Fuzzyland,” is about Jack, a guy who lives with his wife, Liz, in LA. Soon into the story, we find out that Jack’s sister, Tracy, has been raped within the last couple of days, so Jack and Liz head down to San Diego to help Tracy and her two tween daughters. Jack and Tracy had never been close, and really, they don’t know what to make of each other now, after this assault, more than ever.

“Blind-Made Products” is about this guy who signs on to help his best friend’s girlfriend move to a new apartment in Hollywood. The front end—loading up her stuff—is a shitshow, as our guy’s the only one who shows up to help his buddy and girlfriend; as the driver, he doesn’t even help carry boxes, insisting he’s just the driver. The back end is better, though, as more people are waiting to move the girlfriend in, and before you know it, they’re done and a party has unfolded. Meanwhile, our guy is remembering a relationship he had with a blind woman, how he fucked her over and is not necessarily regretting it—if you want to dislike a protagonist in a short story, read this story.

The title story and finale is “Dead Boys,” about a guy in LA (that’s pretty much what this book is) whose wife, Louise, heads out of town for work. The opening has him in a car dealership, checking out some new wheels, but really, he’s not there to buy, just to look, because there was a van with music playing and dancing in the parking lot. After fucking with the saleman a bit, he and his wife leave, never to speak of it again—it’s an interesting opening, symbolic of something, I’m certain, of dreams, of empty promises, of deceit, you name it.

Our guy drops Louise off at the airport, where she’ll be in Denver for who knows how long. He believes she’s sleeping with her boss, which he doesn’t seem too upset about it, though, as he’s got his place to himself for a while. Besides, there’s nothing he can do about this affair, when she’s out of town, with the boss, anyway.

The rest of the story depicts this time with Louise in Denver, our guy up to all kinds of shenanigans. There’s an obligatory trip to a strip club with a coworker, a coworker he likes but not enough to handle the suicidal confessions on the ride back. He eats Saltines and Vienna sausages for dinner. He drinks, a lot, then drinks some more.

He also functions—he’s not like the guy in “Blind-Made Products”—going to work at an ad agency, handling clients, interacting with his team. He comments on his coworkers’ lives, empathizes with their struggles. In the elevator, when he’s alone, he likes to take his dick out of his pants and let it hang for the trip—just because he can. The story is filled with little moments like this, little details that make his world, this week of reclaimed bachelorhood, so interesting.

As much as the time starts with our guy raging, there’s a point at which it starts to turn. Early on, he didn’t care all that much about that affair, but as he sows his oats a bit, stretches out, all of it becomes talk: He wants Louise to come home. I’ll leave it at that, but will note it’s not that pat. Lange creates a complicated character here, and the journey from guy who test-drives cars on a lark to sad bastard is set upon a crooked, detailed path.

I enjoyed the hell out of Dead Boys today, Richard Lange’s debut collection, which he followed up with three novels and another collection. Lange’s seedy view of LA is rough, but warm, dangerous but endearing. And it never fails to surprise. The guys in these stories seem at the cusp of everything going horribly awry, of falling into some parallel, much-worse life, Lange’s tales chronicling them as they toe the line. He’s a gifted writer with a menacing streak, a more-than-welcome combination.