Sweet Nothing: Stories
Richard Lange has quickly established himself as the real deal. SWEET NOTHING is a collection of 10 short stories culled from a number of diverse and, in some cases, obscure publications. All stand wonderfully on their own yet will tug and pull you toward his longer works, which are equally appealing. None of it is to be missed, particularly for those of us who enjoy explorations of the dark edges of the human psyche.
For me, the appeal of SWEET NOTHING is the manner in which it displays Lange’s almost frightening ability to change character and voice so easily. In “Must Come Down,” the narrator is a married man with a pregnant wife named Claire, who is enduring a visit from his in-laws. Need I say more? The parents-to-be are not quite making ends meet --- he is a substitute teacher, she runs a store of some sort --- and depend on Claire’s dad, David, to bridge the financial gap. “Must Come Down” is a bonding exercise, one that fails and, if the ambiguous ending is any indication, gets even worse off the printed page.
"SWEET NOTHING is a quick read --- 10 stories that are all memorable for very different reasons --- but be warned: you will want more, much more of Lange once you finish. Set aside the requisite time and indulge yourself in some of the best and darkest rides of your life."
As convincing as Lange is as the disaffected son-in-law, he is even more so in “Baby Killer,” wherein he takes the voice of a middle-aged Hispanic grandmother whose life is little better than disappointment, but who has a chance to make a difference --- a couple of differences, actually --- if she only has the courage to do so. The reader who does not expect a happy ending will not be disappointed. But just when you think you have Lange figured out, he gives you “The Wolf of Bordeaux,” a historical fiction piece told from the point of view of a prison guard tasked with guarding a multiple child murderer in 1899 as the fiend faces the guillotine. It’s an unflinching look from both sides of a prison cell; while not my favorite story in the book, it’s brilliantly written, as is virtually everything else here.
Lange seems to be at his best when writing about addicts and addictions. While I have my own demons and monkeys, gambling is not one of them. I never understood the allure until I read “The 100-to-1 Club.” It’s set at a horse racetrack and, in about 30 or so painful pages, lays out the entire mess of addiction --- the poor judgment, the bad impulses, the whole nine yards --- with all the nerve endings exposed and pulsating. Addictions of a different sort are the subject of the title story, in which the protagonist is on the front end of one more chance and walking a tightrope. I had no idea how it would end; the last few paragraphs are astounding, for both the simplicity of the writing and the lesson that unfolds.
It would’ve been a good place to end the book, but Lange goes one better with a grim coming-of-age story entitled “To Ashes,” played out against the southern border of the United States. As with all of the stories here, this one could be the basis for a novel. It concerns a teenager and his father looking for relatives who have chosen to traverse the no-man’s land between the United States and Mexico at precisely the wrong time. As good as the story is, the characters are simply unforgettable.
SWEET NOTHING is a quick read --- 10 stories that are all memorable for very different reasons --- but be warned: you will want more, much more of Lange once you finish. Set aside the requisite time and indulge yourself in some of the best and darkest rides of your life.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 27, 2015