‘This Wicked World’ by Richard Lange

This Wicked World

A Novel

Richard Lange

Little, Brown: 406 pp., $23.99

In the hard-boiled universe of Richard Lange’s debut novel, “This Wicked World,” trying to do the right thing can lead only to trouble. Ex-Marine and former bodyguard Jimmy Boone knows this all too well. Fresh out of Corcoran and on parole, he’s biding his time, tending bar for tourists on Hollywood Boulevard and managing a group of rental bungalows.

Yet when Robo, the bar’s bouncer, asks for help on a “hero for hire” gig, Boone hears him out. The job sounds simple enough: Robo needs Boone to accompany him to a meet at a Denny’s restaurant. All Boone has to do is wear a sports jacket and look like a cop. As Robo puts it, “my regular white boy is fishing in Cabo.”

At Denny’s, an elderly Guatemalan man enlists Robo to investigate the death of his grandson, Oscar Rosales, a young migrant worker found dead on an MTA bus and covered with infected dog bites. This puts Boone and Robo on a trail that leads eventually to a sketchy apartment near MacArthur Park, where Oscar had been living. There they find a group of Oscar’s friends, a toothless pit bull and a story. Oscar was mauled by dogs while working for someone out in the desert. He made his way back to L.A. but didn’t see a doctor because he was afraid the people from the desert were coming after him. Beyond that, the friends don’t know anything.

As far as Robo is concerned, it’s enough. He’s done. Boone, on the other hand, can’t let it go. He buys the toothless pit bull from the roommates, and something clicks in him: “It’s time to stop kidding himself. The mystery of Oscar’s death has been haunting him for days, and the only way he’s going to get any peace is by looking into it further. . . . This is what he’s been waiting for when he wakes in the night, his body tense, his mind racing: a mission. A rocky path to some untamed form of redemption.” Thus begins his descent into a brutal world of dog fighting, drugs and counterfeit money.

The stories in Lange’s first book, the critically acclaimed “Dead Boys,” gripped the reader from the first lines: a dozen first-person narrators, utterly convincing in detail and voice. These stories of down-on-their-luck men trying to rise above the past flirted with genre but were first published in literary magazines. “This Wicked World,” however, is more straightforwardly genre-oriented, as if Lange has made the conscious choice to structure his long-form narrative around established conventions of mystery and neo-noir. Written in third person, moving in and out of various characters’ points of view, the novel reveals more of its artifice than the stories did, and as such it feels more like a well-assembled work of entertainment than a gritty dispatch from the front lines.

Parallel chapters follow the machinations of two thugs, their crime boss and the boss’ girlfriend as they enforce the repayment of debts, dispose of a body and set up a dog-fighting event. Lange’s villains are a rogues’ gallery of greed, aspiration, gluttony and stupidity, drawn with a keen eye for their small-time aspirations. One thug needs money for tattoo removal, to look respectable for an upcoming custody battle. Another dreams of producing a line of martial-arts-cum-exercise videos called “Killer Instincts: Way of the Ghetto Warrior.”

Lange is incapable of creating a character that isn’t memorable. Even the most minor are indelibly sketched. The hard-luck denizens of a high desert gas station linger long after the story has left them behind.

And there’s a woman, of course, an ex-cop who lives in one of the bungalows Boone manages. They’ve got a lot in common. Both have dark secrets in their past, immoral actions committed for ostensibly moral reasons. His has to do with an attack on a suspected child molester, hers with a botched police shooting and cover-up. That both are doing penance for what they thought was right is no coincidence -- it’s the novel’s worldview.

A sort of messy redemption awaits them in the end, but there’s no question that Lange enjoys putting his characters through the wringer. Of all of them, only the ambitionless, drug-addled slacker Virgil makes it through unscathed. In this world, the nail that stands up gets hammered down, but the screw that lies on its side just rolls away.

Whether he’s aiming for genre or for literary fiction, Lange has a knack for miniature Southern California tableaux, those things that we notice out of the corner of our eyes. Distributed throughout are gems like the following: “A helicopter clatters low over the building, rattling every loose item in the apartment -- the change and keys on the coffee table, the dishes in the sink. Robo looks at the ceiling while he waits for it to pass. . . .”

Each time I came across one of these throwaway moments, I couldn’t help but wonder what “This Wicked World” would be like if Jimmy Boone were liberated from the plot’s sometimes creaky machinery. I felt this especially toward the end, when Boone’s initial search for redemption gives way to someone else’s revenge plans and a damsel-in-distress scenario.

The zone where literary fiction meets genre fiction is a crowded borderland these days. With “This Wicked World,” Lange proves himself comfortable on both sides of the line.

Wilson is the author of the novel “The Interloper.”