L.A. as seen through reckless eyes

Special to The Times

MALE, mostly young, the protagonists of "Dead Boys," Richard Lange's debut story collection, live in Los Angeles, assailed by debt, drugs and alcohol, by girlfriends and wives who abandon them and by their proclivity for violence and foolish decisions. They work as security guards, motel clerks, mechanics, proofreaders, trying to stay a step ahead of the creditors. Some hail from Texas, some are native-born, but they all exhibit a singularly Angeleno cocktail of despair, resignation and hope. "This city hasn't kept its promises," an ex-Texan observes, "but its lies were no worse than those we left behind." In fact, of the many things Lange does well, it is perhaps Los Angeles itself that he conveys most compellingly. ("There are three different kinds of palm trees between me and the 7-Eleven, and, when the wind's right, the faintest tang of ocean -- just enough scraps of paradise to drive you nuts.")

Lange's heroes are reckless and feckless, but they have their own brand of integrity, and they adhere to their own moral code. In "Bank of America," the narrator has taken to robbing banks as his ticket to the American dream. "Me, I just want a Subway franchise somewhere quiet with good schools," he says, in a manner reminiscent of Richard Ford's early narrators. "A three-bedroom Kaufman and Broad and a decent car." There are shades of Ford too in his oddly moving philosophical fumblings regarding his life of crime: "I'd always imagined that when you crossed the line you saw it coming, but it turned out to be more like gliding over the equator on the open sea. Don't let them kid you, it's nothing momentous, going from that to this."

But in most of Lange's stories, Denis Johnson is the writer who most readily comes to mind in the poetry Lange evokes ("Fallen leaves school like fish in the street, following each other from gutter to gutter") and in the landscape seen through a prism of alcohol and drugs: "A syringe floats in the pool, spinning in slow circles whenever the breeze ruffles the water."

Lange's stories are richest on the level of atmosphere, and though there are haunting, dead-on details throughout the collection (a baby found abandoned on the road on Christmas Eve; a young man who pays off a drug dealer by letting the dealer watch while he and his blind girlfriend have sex), it's the stories that go beyond mood that are most successful.

Yet even in the best ones you wish Lange would push his characters a little harder. In "Fuzzyland," the protagonist and his wife drive his sister, who has been raped, down to San Diego to meet her ex-husband, but when the ex-husband argues that what happened wasn't so simple (" 'She was wasted,' he says. . . . 'She barely remembers. Read the police report. There are doubts.' "), the brother, though shaken, lets the matter drop.

The narrator of "The Bogo-Indian Defense" is asked to transport his friend's ashes to the man's estranged daughter. When the ashes are stolen from his car, he's forced to purchase an urn and fill it with fake ashes. Later, romantically involved with the daughter, he worries she might learn the truth, but she doesn't -- he never tells her -- so the event that set the story in motion goes unexplored.

In "Culver City," the narrator's wife has gotten hold of photos of two famous actors having sex with each other, and she hopes to sell them for a lot of money -- either to the actors or to one of the tabloids. Her husband, however, wants no part of this. It's an intriguing situation, a chance for Lange to deepen the conflict and shed light on this marriage, but instead the couple's house is burgled and the photos are taken; the characters are never forced to choose.

Toward the end of "Fuzzyland," the narrator observes, "I don't want to be one of those people who need to get to the bottom of things." The same might be said of Lange, who's often content to let an image do the talking or to rescue his characters with a burglary or bar fight, when something less cataclysmic would allow him to delve more deeply into character.

The stories in "Dead Boys" are best experienced individually. The repeated themes and voices (all the stories are told in the first person and all but two are in the present tense) cause the stories to merge. But they are all possessed of a sure tone, a wealth of telling detail and a headlong narrative energy. "Promising" is a word bestowed on too many young writers, but in this case it's apt. "Dead Boys" marks the emergence of a compelling new talent.

Joshua Henkin's new novel, "Matrimony," will be published in October.

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