(Not) Ordinary People: 'Sweet Nothing' by Richard Lange
January 27, 2015 9:19 AM
By Lisa L. Kirchner
Key to a good story is knowing what the central character wants so we can follow along as our protagonist tries and tries again. You know you’re in the hands of an expert when that’s covered in the first sentences, as in Richard Lange’s short story “Must Come Down,” which begins: “I’m pushing the cart out of the supermarket, rolling through the automatic doors, when I decide I want a cigarette. Need a cigarette.”
And while this is only the first story in his new collection of shorts — “Sweet Nothing” (Mulholland Books/Little, Brown and Co., $26) — the urgency only ramps up in the nine tales that follow. In each narrative, whether written from the first, third or omniscient perspective, Mr. Lange dives deep into his characters’ lives in order to reveal ever deeper, ever darker wants, taking readers to that frightening place where thoughts and deeds rarely match.
The result is a collection of truly flawed characters, making ordinary mistakes in everyday circumstances. You can’t help but root for these people, especially since they so rarely succeed here. In fact, the weakest stories may be “Baby Killer” and “Wolf of Bordeaux,” because the main characters are essentially decent; both titles refer to the criminals our leads must confront.
However, even without the dire personal faults, the stories are vivid. The former ends in a scene where our central character dances with her unrequited love, wondering if God wants to see her cry. In the latter our convict keeps asking for a plate of lamprey. Could there be a more evocatively revolting request?
Most striking in these stories is Mr. Lange’s efficient use of language. The author creates poetry from the simplest of words and moments. “We don’t say anything to each other as I pass by, I don’t even look at him, but our souls scrape like ships’ hulls, and I shudder from stem to stern,” goes one such instant in “Apocrypha.” Or in the titular “Sweet Nothing,” where the main character says, “ ‘I don’t want to die,’ ” before adding to himself, “but that’s a lie, sometimes I do.”
Mr. Lange flips easily between days past (“Wolf of Bordeaux” is set in 1899), and even a post-apocalyptic future world (“After All”), but he truly excels in the present time, the partial familiarity making the stories read more like a memory than something unknown.
Take for instance “Instinctive Drowning Response,” which follows the aftermath of an overdose from the perspective of the boyfriend. It’s the kind of story that stays with you for days afterward. “Since Maryrose died, anything not rimed with sorrow is suspect; anything gentle, anything hopeful, is as deceptive as a thirteen-year-old girl’s daydream of love, a sugarcoated time bomb.”
Fans of Mr. Lange’s previous books — “Angel Baby” (a novel), “Dead Boys” (another short story collection) and “This Wicked World” (his debut novel) — will recognize his characters on the abyss. What he’s done so successfully here is boil their plots into moments. In “To Ashes,” the terror of border crossings is painfully clear from one 24-hour stretch, yet it never feels preachy. Far from it.
Do not for one moment, however, think that this all must add up to something deadly. 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. Not that it’s exactly a page-turner. This is the kind of book you’ll want to savor.
Lisa L. Kirchner is the author of “Hello American Lady Creature: What I Learned as a Woman in Qatar” (LisaLKirchner.com).
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