May 2009

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

Beautiful Losers

Samuel Beckett once wrote that the only sin is the sin of being born. It’s a thought that comes to me from time to time in meeting the tragic figures that populate the literary realm, from Chandler’s and Hammett’s busted flushes on down to the bottom of the barrel. These born losers are the ones who grab your imagination the way cops pull down a suspect, unmercifully.

Of course, this predisposition towards failure is nothing new, as hard luck cases have always been a staple of the genre, but man, the examples that keep crossing my desk this month are brutal. In Johnson’s wicked little novella originally serialized in Playboy titled Nobody Move, it’s chain-smoking gambler Jimmy Luntz, who’s just been shot in the leg, and still finds the nerve to plan his retirement score. In musician Joe Pernice’s debut novel coming out in August, It Feels So Good When I Stop, it’s this great unnamed musician, fleeing from the wasteland of his broken marriage, one of those rare guys who recognizes how deep he’s in. “When I met Jocelyn, I knew within minutes I was going to either marry her or completely destroy my life,” Pernice writes. “It never occurred to me that both things could happen.”

I love seeing these kinds of literary explosive devices invade the public consciousness, because maybe it means that someday things will change. Take a good hard look at this week’s bestseller list. You’ll find a lot of overly familiar names on that damned thing. Discounting a couple of anomalies like Chuck Palahniuk and Charlaine Harris, not to even mention Stephanie Meyer’s little cult, I find most of the is dominated by writers of mystery or thriller fiction, which is all well and good. But I also crunched a few numbers and wound up with an average author age close to seventy. That’s the average, mind you.

I can’t see it happening but I’d like to see some new blood on that list in my lifetime. Let’s see Charlie Huston land a number one bestseller. Let’s see some serious mainstream attention pointed at Adam Davies, or Duane Swierczynski. Above all, let’s find some new wunderkinds with talent to burn who can knock some of these dinosaurs off those charts.

Every now and then – not often, but once in a long goddamned time -- somebody gets it right. That was the case a couple of months ago when I heard that Richard Lange won a Guggenheim Fellowship on the strength of his debut collection of short stories, Dead Boys. Hell, yes, say I.

Imbued with a much-improved outlook on the fate of the genre, I recalled that this month sees the publication of Lange’s debut novel, This Wicked World. I remembered interviewing Lange way back when, while the new book was only a twinkle in his macabre little eye. At the time, I couldn’t get more than a single word out of him about the book.

“Skullduggery,” said he. Fortunately, when I caught up with him this go-round, the now award-winning author had more to say.

“It’s a crime story set in Los Angeles and the desert outside L.A.,” Lange reports. “It starts as something of a whodunit and morphs into a revenge caper, told from the points of view of a number of different characters, both good guys and bad guys. It’s got drug dealers, dog fighting, crazy strippers, big guns, kung fu, a rattlesnake, and a fortune in counterfeit bills: something for everyone. But while it’s plot-heavy, I hope readers will fall for the people in the book as well. I sure did, and hated every time I had to kill one.”

This is not to mention the book has one hell of a main character, a former Marine, ex-con and generally doomed drifter named Jimmy Boone. Jimmy is trying, if not to necessarily play it straight, at least to keep off the radar until his parole term is capped. As usual, Lange’s prose is bone dry and breathtaking, reveling in the interplay between one haunted man and a city that won’t let him be. Hell, Richard even does me the favor of lifting a quote from our man Beckett, from the Irishman’s Worstword Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I’ll take his throwaway liaison to the man’s introduction to Jimmy Boone. Here’s a terrific snapshot of Lange’s desiccated style.

Fail better. Boone wakes up thinking he’s going to take this as his motto, the most he can hope for. The previous night’s dreams, more real than life a moment ago, slip away from him, and he lies in bed and listens to the birds’ simple morning songs while waiting for damn to chase the shadows into the corners.

He’s in the midst of putting his day in order -- the meeting at Denny’s, the Laundromat, grocery shopping -- when the past begins to circle like a persistent fly, demanding attention. As far as he’s concerned, it does him no good to look backward when all he’s going to do is beat himself up for the mistakes he’s made. But sometimes, despite his best efforts, he’s forced to contemplate the damage.

The plot is easy enough to discover for yourself, but it’s kicked off when Jimmy, who’s minding his own business tending bar in a Hollywood saloon, is talked into playing bodyguard for his buddy Robo, who’s looking into the death of a Guatemalan immigrant on a cross-town bus. Jimmy’s better than the work – his rate for a similar gig ran a thousand dollars a day in better times -- but now, he needs the money.

“Jimmy Boone is a guy who’s trying to live a decent life in an indecent world,” Lange tells me. “He’s a wounded soul who gets involved in the incidents that drive the novel reluctantly, but later picks up the reins of the investigation as a kind of redemptive act. It doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to, and he ends up putting himself and others in a lot of danger. He was interesting to write because he’s so conflicted. He wants to do right, wants to be a better man, but makes some bad choices and is forced to step over to the dark side to set things right.”

As he did in Dead Boys, the author covers a lot of ground in Los Angeles, as well as conducting a lot of weird research in the name of art. Far from sticking to those famous Hollywood locations so familiar from tons of movies and television shows, Lange takes his time in depicting the torn fringes of the city.

“What I love about Los Angeles is its diversity,” he says. “There are so many neighborhoods here that are way more vital and interesting than the Malibu or Beverly Hills fantasia that most people picture when they think of Southern California. Thai Town, Little Armenia and Historic Filipinotown are all within five minutes of my house. Parts of this book are set in South Central, MacArthur Park, and the industrial zone on the edge of the city. I enjoy writing about places that are a bit off the beaten path, places that most people drive right past on the freeway. You have to walk the sidewalks, smells the smells, eat the food. You’ve got to get down on the surface streets to see where people really live.”

The novel is a damned fine first for a guy who poured heart and soul into his short fiction, and I’m not the only one that thinks so. The book trades have already given the book their early stamp of approval, while Joseph Wambaugh, no less, compares Lange to a young James Ellroy. That said, I’m happy to report that Lange has earned enough breathing room to return to writing short stories for the time being, a more leisurely-paced vocation that didn’t leave him, as he recalls of novel-writing, always feeling like he was running to catch a train.

“The book is more of an entertainment than the stories,” Lange says. “It has a plot that moves along at a brisk clip and characters that really get out into the world and do each other dirty. I do a little more work for the reader this time, tie things together more. What I tried to retain from the stories is that overarching sense of desperation and desolation, characters with complex psychologies whom you find yourself liking in spite of their many failings, and those quick glimpses of L.A. that capture the city I know and love.”

Of course, it’s not like Lange is suddenly running off at the mouth simply because he has more room to stretch out in This Wicked World. The language is as taut as ever, even as Lange unravels a hostile underground of drug dealers, dog fighting and other questionable pastimes that the average citizen couldn’t imagine on their worst day.

“I’m a big fan of authors who say what they have to say without a lot of jibber jabber,” Lange says. “One well-turned phrase or concise bit of description is often more memorable, more striking, than ten flowery flailings. I like to sucker punch the reader, and then run away, so I tend to strive for the one perfect image rather than stating the same thing five different ways. Sometimes that comes through the first time, and sometimes it involves lots of cutting.”

Regardless of the output we see next from Lange, expect to see a similar gang of beautiful losers in the future, if for no other reason, according to the author, that these guys are inescapable.

“Crime fiction is a great playground,” Lange says. “You’re dealing with powerful archetypes. The characters you’re writing about have been around forever and will be around forever, in every society under every form of government. They’re the lumpenproletariat that Marx talked about, the ‘refuse of all classes,’ ‘the swindlers, confidence tricksters, brothel-keepers, rag-and-bone merchants, beggars and other flotsam of society.’ They’re cockroaches, rats, and above all, survivors. My day-to-day life is relatively sedate, so as a writer I love to muck around in that violent, lawless, anarchic world. It’s fun to write about guns and dope fiends, and scare yourself sometimes. And I do like to have fun.”

Clayton Moore puts his money where his mouth is. Want a shot at winning a copy of Dead Boys? Come see me at claywriting.blogspot.com.