I’ve been to Los Angeles once in my life. I was traveling on business a couple years after the Rodney King Riots and the subsequent re-trial of the officers who were present at the arrest of Mr. King. The city was under a great deal of scrutiny following those events and there remained a good deal of racial tension simmering beneath the surface of that sprawling urban setting.
I found downtown to be an uninteresting, almost antiseptic place. My most vivid memory is of walking down a deserted street from my hotel, looking for a place to get something to eat. It was after 10:00 p.m. and the restaurant in my hotel was closed – as was everything else in the neighborhood. I know most of the action in L.A. takes place on the West Side of town and among the numerous outlying communities, but I was more than a little disappointed at the options available to me at that time, in that place.
During my quest for food, I crossed the street diagonally at a broad intersection. There were no cars to be seen approaching from any direction, but as soon as my feet hit the opposite sidewalk, the brief whoop of a siren caught my attention. I turned to find two motorcycle cops pulling up to the curb beside me, but I kept walking. Even though I was the only other person in view, I couldn’t imagine what I might have done to raise suspicion. Nevertheless, one of the officers barked at me to stop and hand over my identification. I politely complied, and as I pushed my driver’s license at him he laughed.
“East Coast,” he chuckled with a hint of derision. “That explains it.”
I was confused, and asked why I was being stopped. The officer told me I was jay walking, and that while I might get away with it in Boston, it was a no-no in Los Angeles. Pointing, he told me that there was a Mexican neighborhood in that direction, and another down the street in the opposite direction and that “they race down this street to get from one to the other and will run you down.”
Nice to see the city’s sensitivity training paying off, I thought to myself.
I never had much of a desire to visit LA, but that encounter sealed it for me. Any chance the city had of capturing my fancy through the creative lens of Hollywood was forever lost that week. I don’t hate the place, but I there’s nothing attractive to me there. It’s a city that exists in television and movies.
With such a negative bias, perhaps it’s unfair of me to offer a review of Dead Boys, a new book by Richard Lange, a collection of twelve short stories that take place within and near to Los Angeles. Much like my personal encounter with the City of Angels, I found Lange’s book to be unsatisfying.
The characters in Dead Boys fail again and again to matter to me. There’s the down on his luck coffee shop denizen whose encounter with the daughter of a recently deceased compatriot seems to want to offer some hope for redemption, but ultimately falls flat from a lack of emotion; or the drama-free tale of a house painter turned bank robber who steals in order to raise the funds to move his family to better neighborhood, but I end up not caring if he buys his dream house in the hills, gets busted by the police, or gunned down by a partner in an act of betrayal because the character is neither evil nor good. He just is, as are most of the characters in Lange’s stories.
I wondered while reading Dead Boys if the dozen urban tales weren’t meant to be an allegory for Los Angeles itself, an artifice of sound and motion, but ultimately amoral and without substance. Los Angeles is supposed to be one of America’s great cities, but how great can it really be if its main product is empty fiction as flat as your new high-definition television or the screen at the local multiplex? How seriously can I take a city whose police, in the aftermath of three turbulent years, occupy their time with jay walkers. If the world’s view of America comes through Los Angeles, how can that possibly be good for our image abroad?
I will give Lange this much: the dialog he crafts for his characters is believable. You can imagine that the men and women who populate his stories are real, that they might be sitting beside you in the diner while you read the morning paper, or in line behind you at the grocery store. I only wish he could have given me an equally compelling reason to believe in his characters, to find myself invested in the denouement, to have a reason to turn each page and learn what comes next.
There is no reason. Then again, maybe that’s Lange’s ultimate point.