... a story collection set in a Southern California that won't be found in any travel guides.
His fascinating characters include a 450-pound man who has no chin or waist who is trying to lose weight on a diet of soup, salad, and Cheerios; his Craigslist apartment mate, a minimum wage Subway sandwich maker who forfeited a six-digit salary and his family for a cocaine habit; a perpetual gambler trying to break his self-defeating cycle; an elderly man who lives alone in a trailer and reads Shakespeare; and various between-luck people who have done time, been to too many AA meetings, clothed themselves out of dumpsters, witnessed homicides, and lived in thin-walled apartments where gunshots are heard nightly and graffiti grows even on trees.
Since you may not have ever met people in your life who remotely resemble Lange’s characters, it’s easy to snicker at their self-destructive choices and self-righteously assume that (thank goodness) you have nothing in common with them. But Lange won’t let you get away quite that easily. These flawed characters, as reviewer Lisa Kirchner writes, "are making ordinary mistakes in everyday circumstances. You can’t help but root for these people, especially since they so rarely succeed here."
Perhaps his greatest strength as a writer is his ability to inject his characters with a common humanness that prevents us from dismissing them so easily. No matter how down on their luck his characters may be or how many mistakes have reversed the fortunes of their lives, we see ourselves reflected in their insights and hopes that maybe tomorrow will be better. And we rejoice with them in their rare moments of grace.
It’s not difficult to relate with the narrator of “Sweet Nothing” as he ponders the mystery of life:
"Smoke a cigarette, change the channel, stare into space. Then go to sleep, go to work, and come home, over and over and over again, until all your questions are answered or you forget you ever wondered." (p. 212)
And even if you’re not a gambler, you can empathize with the narrator’s explanation of his addition in the “The 100-to-1 Club”:
"Talk to a shrink or counselor or the folks at Gamblers Anonymous, and they’ll give you all kinds of explanations for why you do it. They’ll tell you that it’s chemical, that you have a death wish, that you secretly want to lose in order to be punished for the sins of your past, that you’re trying to return to a childlike state where miracles still happen.
It’s a lot simpler for me. I gamble because I like to win. I want to win. It makes me feel good. And you need something to make you feel good after ten hours of loading trucks for some prick who thinks you’re dirt, after sitting across the desk from a parole officer who’s waiting for you to violate, after listening to your mom put you down like she has your whole life. When I take a chump for twenty bucks on a pool table or pick up a few pots in a card game, something opens up inside me, and I’m as good as everyone else thinks they are—no, better. For an hour or a day, however long my streak lists, every move I make is the right one, and my smile can bring the world to its knees. The only problem is, it can’t last forever. You have to lose eventually so that someone else can win. Bitch and moan all you want, but that’s the first, and worst, rule of the universe." (p. 101)
It is Armando Morales’s story, who sets out in search of his missing nephew and wife, who are illegally crossing the border from Mexico into California at the same time there is a massive border fire. It is Miguel’s story, who reluctantly accompanies his father into the fire-ravaged wasteland in search of his cousins, only to be challenged physically and emotionally as he has never been before. “To Ashes” is also Brewer’s story—a lonely 70 year old who refuses to leave his trailer, even when it is threatened by the fire—who determines if he is forced to evacuate, the one possession he will take with him is his battered copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare. And, even though we know learn little about them, the narrative is also Alberto and Maria’s story, for it is their fatal attempt to cross the border that brings together Armando, Miguel, and Brewer in search of the missing couple.
“To Ashes” is a beautiful and sensitive story of loneliness, family closeness, and human connections.
Richard Lange’s Writing Style
The majority of Richard Lange’s stories included in Sweet Nothing as well as his earlier collection, Dead Boys, are narrated in the present tense by characters who invite us to share their struggles in trying to live the normal lives most of us take for granted. They want stable relationships, steady jobs, and kids whom they see more than once a year. But fate seems determined to steer them in other directions. Although Lange’s characters seldom succeed, his light touch, comic injections, and obvious empathy prevent his narratives from ever seem dark or depressing. Kirchner writes: Despite the tragedies and scarcity of kindness, what comes across is the human animal’s capacity for perseverance in the face of failure. The characters go on, and so we must flip the page.”
Most of Lange’s stories are set in the LA area, where he lives. The strong sense of place evidenced in his stories gives them authenticity and local flavor.
Lange’s writing is peppered with imagery that turns ordinary prose into something more akin to poetry. In “Must Come Down” the narrator describes his apartment as “kind of a dump. The plaster walls are cracked, the floor feels spongy beneath your feet, and when the guy in the next unit takes a leak, he sounds like he’s using our toilet” (p. 7). The narrator of “The 100-to-1 Club” describes his survival technique during his 48-hour stay in jail: “I spent all my time guarding my personal space, displaying enough aggression to ward off the jackals but not so much that I riled the tigers” (p. 76). He describes his horse racing date, Lupe’s, smile as one that “could stop a war,” but it can’t stop him from gambling away her money (p. 87). For Brewer, growing older and more lonely each day in “To Ashes,” “the past seems like a fuse that was lit the moment he was born, one that now burns faster than he can run.” (p. 237). Sprinklings of dark humor also provide comic relief and help prevent the stories from being too dark.