‘Sweet Nothing’ by Richard Lange: A patina of withered wishes

When was the last time you squandered your girlfriend’s money at the racetrack?

Reluctantly stopped your neighbors from robbing a rundown jewelry store? Defended your trailer home from an encroaching wildfire with little more than some flame retardant and a garden hose?

In “Sweet Nothing,” a collection of short stories, Richard Lange asks readers not only to visit these uncomfortable scenarios, he demands we take off our coats and stay for a while. With his lyrical yet matter-of-fact prose, he drills straight to the center of society’s, well, fringe. We might not find his characters’ lives desirable, but we do relate to their basic humanity, occasionally in spite of ourselves.

They seem to inhabit a world where the sun never rises, and the landscape is colored in varying shades of gray, a patina of withered wishes and forgotten dreams that hover perpetually just along the horizon.

Still, these addicts, exasperated grandparents and jailbirds never fully abandon the hope that things could get better, riding a series of minor victories from one day to the next.

In “The Wolf of Bordeaux,” a French man spends his days guarding a death-row inmate convicted of murdering eight children. He is horrified by the prisoner’s crimes and wishes for him to suffer.

“Perhaps, in the glorious future we’re hurtling toward, some genius will discover a way to return the dead to life again and again, and we’ll have true justice at last, as we march our villains to the blade and drop their heads into the basket as many times as is necessary to square their accounts,” Lange writes.

But after spending so much time in the company of madness, the man fears he has “seen through the eyes of a snake” and become “close to beastliness” himself. This self-awareness coupled with repulsion creates a fascinating character study and makes the man’s trivial triumph following the execution feel completely earned.

In “The 100-to-1 Club,” a gambling addict spends his last hundred bucks taking a woman and her son on a first date — to the horse track of all places. Initially it’s easy to recognize how this is a horrible idea, but the reader quickly get sucked into his flawed logic. We’re even rooting for him (while simultaneously cringing) when the man bets his date’s winnings on a long shot.

As in most of Lange’s stories, nothing goes according to plan.

“By the time we get to the condo, the sun is sinking fast, dragging the day down with it,” the gambler thinks. “I say something that I hope will turn Lupe around and make her see the good in me, something that starts with ‘Please’ and that I’d be ashamed for anybody else to hear, but she won’t listen.”

Lange’s sense of isolation laced with desperation pervades this collection by the former Guggenheim fellow who has been compared to short-short auteur Raymond Carver. He illuminates a diverse cast, most surprisingly, a widowed Latina grandmother who witnesses a heinous crime in “Baby Killer.”

“Everything we have could be snatched away from us as quickly as the wind blows out a candle,” as one character summarizes.

No matter how far people have fallen, they’ll do whatever they can to retain their grasp on a better future, no matter how tenuous.

Angela Lutz is a master of fine arts candidate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City studying fiction.

Sweet Nothing: Stories, by Richard Lange (27s pages; Mulholland; $26)