Don't the sun look angry through the trees?
Don't the trees look like crucified thieves?
Don't you feel like desperados under the eaves?
It’s 2 a.m. according to the cracked face of this brass pocket watch ticking my life away, and it’s hot as hell. Lucky me, I have plenty of company.
People don’t sleep when it’s this hot. They lie there sweating, wide eyes staring out into the blackness while they murmur their prayers, or they shamble around empty houses like ghosts who can’t tell the party’s over. It’s why disc jockeys evolved into being, those caffeine-addled turntable pilots like Scott Cochrane in the late James Robert Baker’s lost classic Fuel-Injected Dreams, keeping lost souls company with gibbering monologues about death trips, moonlight drives, and all the other bleak apparitions of Radio Noir.
Out there in the wilderness, there’s plenty of music filtering through that old urban forest. In the summertime, everyone is tuned to the sounds of southern California. If you listen closely, there’s a guy a few blocks away jangling away at the opening notes of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” on a 12-string guitar. In a few minutes, that subtle boom-boom-boom you can feel in your guts will change into full-blown rap straight outta Compton, yo, as some punk kid blows by in daddy’s car with Brotha Lynch Hung or Tupac loosening his fillings. On some lover’s lane on the hill, Brian Wilson croons “God Only Knows.”
Me? I’m putting on Warren Zevon’s self-titled 1976 debut album and listening to the air conditioners hum along. I’m also sampling Crystal Zevon’s fractured oral history of her beleaguered ex-husband, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon. The book itself is a mess, albeit a fascinating one, with very little about the creation of Zevon’s passion plays about Los Angeles and a whole lot about his bad example of a lifestyle. When he was alive, I always managed to catch him at his worst, when he was just emerging from rehab while touring behind the aptly named Learning to Flinch, or an odd solo performance at Hunter Thompson’s request when he was almost sick to death. In some ways, he resembled his city in those moments -- a little frayed around the edges, the slightest bit desperate, and always a little out of breath.
Here and there, though, there are great insights into Zevon’s character in the book, if you can ferret them out. Perhaps all poor, dead Warren needed was an AA meeting and a typewriter.
“He was hardboiled like the noir detectives he loved to read so keenly,” said childhood friend Kit Crawford of his four-eyed friend. “We were sarcastic beyond belief, cynical beyond our experience, believing in nothing but the hilarity of bitterness. Putting people down was one of our few great joys, and we both went at it with enormous delight. For me it was for kicks, a way to vent my anger. For Warren, it was an exercise to keep the hounds of despair at bay. Maybe that’s why he drank far more than anyone else I knew.”
What emerges in fits and starts is a portrait of a true fan of noir fiction, a lunatic obsessive-compulsive, sure, but also a guy who would chase down writers like Jim Crumley or Thomas McGuane, finding blood brothers in the scribes that he so admired.
“Warren was pretty enthusiastic about writers, and I think writing was what interested him, in a way, more than anything else he did,” McGuane said.
My favorite new (living) crime writer shares that characteristic with my favorite dead singer -- a love of writing that goes all the way down. It is my distinct pleasure to introduce to you, dear readers, the gifted Richard Lange. He’s the author of Dead Boys, a collection of a dozen of the best damned short stories you’ll read this or any other year, and it will be published by Little, Brown on August 14th. His stories about the underbelly of Los Angeles are as dry, brittle, and breathtaking as the Mojave Desert and, despite all their gritty noir minimalism, they’re heartbreaking.
Some of you might recognize Lange’s stripped-down style from “Bank of America,” which was deservedly published in The Best American Mystery Stories 2004. That story introduced a housepainter who is a working class hero to his struggling family -- who happens to be hiding the fact that he’s a serial bank robber planning his retirement heist. All the stories, from the haunted protagonist of “Love Lifted Me” to the brittle everyman of the title story, have been scraped and stripped of everything but their basest humanity, like boiling a man down to nothing but his soul. Here’s a brief example of the author’s pokerfaced dialogue from the first story, “Fuzzyland.”
“You live in L.A.?” Phillip says to me. “I’m sorry.”
A real tough guy, going for the dig right off the bat.
“I like the action,” I reply.
“I was down there for a while. Too crazy.”
“You have to know your way around.”
I caught up with Lange earlier this year and convinced him to reveal some of his trade secrets. An editorial vagabond whose gigs have included working for Larry Flynt and manning the helm at the influential heavy metal rag RIP Magazine, Lange didn’t publish his first short story until he was 35 years old. Influenced by the usual suspects -- among them Raymond Carver, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, as well as more contemporary craftsmen like Charles Willeford and Richard Price -- Lange started fashioning his desperate tales in the wee small hours of the night, after the working day was done.
“I started out writing short stories and only wanting to write short stores, with Raymond Carver as the model for that kind of life,” he said. “But that didn’t pay the bills, so I tried writing novels and screenplays for money and was a miserable failure at it. When I got a real job, writing became a hobby, and if it was going to be just a hobby, I decided to only write what I really wanted to write, which were short stories.”
Lange is a cultural sponge and his stories represent a kind of patchwork of real-life incidents, imaginative leaps of fantasy, and eavesdropped, intimate snippets of conversation.
“I love the fact that I get to spend hours creating a moment,” he said. “I’ve always been very involved in the world, very aware of and interested in what’s going on around me as I [go] down the street, drive to work, get a haircut. I’m never bored, and nothing is ever mundane. Being a writer, I’m able to combine all the great material I collect every day -- the look on a bored grocery clerk’s face, an overhead argument, the way the light slices into the shadow at a particular hour -- into stories. Thus, these magical events will never be lost to me. These stories are like scrapbooks -- lots of little memories and incidents pasted together. In that respect, the book is like an encoded history of certain aspects of my life.”
A few things tie the stories together. First, they primarily focus on men. One of my colleagues at Kirkus Reviews made the coherent point in the publication’s review that, “The men who people this collection may engage in macho posturing, but their author never does.” Meaning that neither they, not their creator, are kidding themselves.
“These are men who are doing their best to get by and hold it together, both mentally and in terms of their day-to-day survival,” Lange said. “They all have plans, structures that they have imposed on their lives in order to give themselves the illusion of control, and some of those plans are working out better than others. I’m one of those people who believes that life is tough, so my characters exist in a rough old world. I want all of them to make it, to be happy, but we all don’t, and we all aren’t.”
Secondly, the inhabitants of Dead Boys live and die, breathe and scream by the grace of the City of Angels.
“L.A. may come across as a scary place in some of the stories, but I love the city like I would love a person,” Lange said. “It amazes and enchants me every day. In fact, some of these stories were inspired more by places than by characters. ‘The Bogo-Indian Defense’ came about because I wanted to write about the doughnut shop where all the characters hang out. The thing is, there are lots of different versions of Los Angeles, as many as there are people who come here. My L.A. is both a hopeful place and a maddening place. People come here to make their dreams come true, everybody from the Guatemalans in the sweatshops to the model/actress/waitresses. They are incredibly optimistic until things don’t work out, and then they can get a little crazy, stuck out here at the edge of the world.”
Lange also loves these stories in much the same way, and was devastated to finish, for example, the story “Dead Boys,” because it was, so far, the best work of his entire career. Fortunately for us, the writer chose to cowboy up, crack his knuckles, and start work on a forthcoming novel called The Kissproof World, the title cribbed from the terminal verse in Dylan Thomas’s poem “When, Like a Running Grave.” So far, Lange has met an Amazon witchdoctor, played poker at an Indian casino, and fired a Glock handgun in the pursuit of the novel’s details. He can also sometimes be found skulking around South Central and MacArthur Park in the name of research.
The book’s central thesis? “Skullduggery,” Lange said. He also has the street debut of Dead Boys to anticipate.
“I got my first story published when I’d put in enough work and was a good enough writer to get it published,” he said. “I believe it happened when it was supposed to happen. At that point, I felt validated as a writer. Everything else, I decided, would be gravy. My joy was writing the stories and now they are out there in the world for people to love, hate, be bored by, whatever. I wrote stores that I wanted to read, stories that moved me, and the greatest thing that could happen would be that other people will be moved by them as well. And sometimes great things happen, right?”
So my conversation with Lange ended on a note of hope. What a funny old world.
The great thing about short stories is that you can digest one or two during these crackling, dysfunctional hours when the depth of a novel seems overwhelming. Zevon is broadcasting “Mohammed’s Radio” and I’m delving into the gin-soaked mirage that is Los Angeles Noir, the most recent volume in Akashic Books’ series of contemporary noir collections based around the world’s dirtiest cities. It features terrific stories of liars, lovers, police and thieves by a wildly diverse rogue’s gallery of creators including Michael Connelly, Neal Pollack, Christopher Rice and Robert Ferrigno, as well as a refreshing dose of ingenuity from some fantastic women writers including literary novelist Janet Fitch (White Oleander), National Book Award finalist Susan Straight, and Edgar Award finalist Naomi Hirahara.
Back when the sun was still shining, I was graciously granted an audience with the anthology’s editor, Denise Hamilton, an eminently gifted writer in her own right who has written five blistering Eve Diamond novels starring her eye-opening crime reporter. (Start with The Jasmine Trade and work your way forward to last year’s Prisoner of Memory. You won’t be sorry, trust me.)
Hamilton’s path to Los Angeles Noir is a disconcerting one. Her feel for the city, a sense of its sins that pervades both her own books and this new anthology, comes from more than a decade spent reporting on the city’s crime for The Los Angeles Times and other publications. Add to that experience an abiding respect for the dime store classicists who came before us and it makes one hell of a resume.
“I am a huge fan of Raymond Chandler and James Cain and Nathaniel West and Dashiell Hammett,” Hamilton said. “When I started writing my own novels, I was very caught up in their wonderful noir tales and wanted to transpose that style to present day Los Angeles, which I do think is more ‘noir’ than ever. But I also wanted to do it from a young woman’s perspective, in 21st century multicultural L.A. And of course, newspaper journalism is so hard-boiled, filled with black humor and swagger and sensitive characters hiding behind tough exteriors. You see all the worst that humanity has to offer, because they don’t call reporters out unless there’s a body. As my journalism teacher used to say, ‘If the sun rose today, it ain’t a story.’”
Picking over the bones of Phillip Marlowe would have been easy, but Hamilton has managed to infuse the L.A. Noir collection with a bracing mix of tales that match the dizzying diversity that has always been one of the city’s hallmarks.
“Classic noir was pretty much dominated by white dudes,” Hamilton said, noting a few obvious exceptions. “Having read a lot of it, I found myself wondering, where is the Latino Raymond Chandler, or the Chinese-American James Cain of classic noir? Where do I go to get that perspective? I can’t imagine anything more dreary than contemporary L.A. stories with rehashed noir clichés about solitary embittered gumshoes in drab offices with rain pattering the windows. L.A. is a very different place today, tripled in size and drawing people from all over the world. It’s a creative crucible of ideas for the entire world, for good as well as ill -- think of Hollywood but also street gangs, both exporting their trade. There is also more incredible wealth and breathtaking poverty here now than ever before. So I thought that this idea of L.A. as the Wild West meets East, this mix of peoples, was something that this anthology could showcase.”
To accomplish her vision, Hamilton chose stories that cover the width and breadth of Los Angeles from its mansions on the hill to the most squalid suburbs. Michael Connelly delivers a characteristically outstanding police procedural, “Mulholland Drive,” while Robert Ferrigno weighs in with a brittle soliloquy about a heist gone awry in Belmont Shore. There are cops and robbers here but many of the stories take a stranger turn, such as Janet Fitch’s modern-day play on Sunset Boulevard titled “The Method,” or Hamilton’s own contribution, an abrupt corporate heist that ends with “Murder in Silicon Valley.”
“I was looking for stories that engaged my imagination, which took me somewhere new,” Hamilton said. “I wanted stories that dripped with classic noir themes but were shot through a contemporary lens. And, to paraphrase Michael Connelly, I wanted to see stories where it’s not the cop working the crime but the crime working the cop or the crime working the victims, the criminals, and everyone around the crime. I saw my role in putting this together as a kind of literary cultural archeologist, excavating and sifting through layers to assemble a portrait, in 17 snapshots, of what it was like to be alive and moving through this noir L.A. place near the beginning of the 21st century.”
It’s a new world out there on the West Coast and Hamilton is an eyewitness to the fact that the streets have only gotten meaner since Marlowe’s heyday.
“In Marlowe’s day, we didn’t have street gangs, 13-year-olds with guns, crack, meth, the widespread desperate poverty, the undocumented underclasses and immigrants that we have today,” Hamilton said. “Los Angeles was a much smaller place, one of civility, where watching out for your neighbor and other old-fashioned values were still strong. The murder rate was very low, compared to today. People still committed crimes over passion, jealousy, and power that date back to the caveman days, but it wasn’t on the scale that it is today.”
So the old cycle of violence keeps turning out there in Los Angeles, perpetually going around and around like this worn record of mine. The sun’s just coming up on the West Coast as I write these words and so maybe, with just a hint of that elusive hope that keeps sneaking up on us, we can all make it through one more lousy day. In the meantime, it’s time to turn off the radio, put the ghosts to bed, and call it a night.
The bar is closed.