Angeles Times Book Review
A CUTE meet in Death Valley is the arresting scene that opens "The Honor System," the first of four stories and one novella in Alan Rifkin's new collection, "Signal Hill." Suddenly, and vividly, all the ambiguities and complexities of urban life in contemporary Los Angeles assert themselves in the most primal of desert wildernesses.
A woman called Catherine and the nameless narrator bump into each other, quite literally, at a place called Badwater and end up in each other's laps. "I had to say 'Whoa,' as a warning," the narrator explains. "Saying 'Whoa' instead of 'I'm sorry' is something my Westwood therapist would call growth."
Such is the world of hyper-self-awareness that Rifkin conjures in "Signal Hill." But the wry moments are always soaked in irony, and each flirtation is only the prelude to heartbreak. What his characters do seems ultimately to matter less to Rifkin than what they feel. Even a scene of carnal passion is more aptly described by him as "the psychic unveiling room of sex." For all their self-revelation, or perhaps because of it, not a single soul in "Signal Hill" is comfortable in his or her own skin. The women are tantalizing but troubled figures who linger just out of reach, and the men, though they yearn, are checked by the curse of what Rifkin calls "male circumspection." Even the couples who manage to get together can't manage to get it right. "It seems to me that from the start Ann and I were equally tired, but of different things," muses the narrator of "Sonority." "She was tired of defending herself, and I was tired of my expectations."
The most poignant moments in "Signal Hill" hark back to the childhood experiences Rifkin suggests as explanations for the dysfunctional lives of the grown-ups who tell these stories. The voice we hear in "The Idols of Sickness," for example, belongs to a man whose divorced mother was a "haircolor model" with a truck driver boyfriend.
As a boy, the narrator sought to gain his mother's attention and sympathy -- and thus win her away from the boyfriend -- by conducting research into the strangest genital disorder he could plausibly feign. "Hardly anyone opens a medical encyclopedia who isn't looking for trouble," he cracks. His mother dutifully expresses her concern, but utterly fails to satisfy the appetite of a lonely and needy child. "I could hear her dress shift on the bed and an earring jangle," he recalls. "And a cough from the boyfriend in the den. I was as good as alone here."
A divorced father is no less a disappointment. The young man in "After the Divorce" lives with his mother and encounters his father only on painfully formal occasions. "I drank three or four glasses of water standing in his kitchen wondering what it would be like not to stand and 'visit,' but instead to flop down in one of his stepsons' bedrooms like it was mine," he mourns. "He'd be your North Star, and you would see how, without trying, you would grow to your inheritance, as two points make a map." But he cannot bring himself to ask his father about the reason for their estrangement: "Questioning a father's love is a lapse even Jesus could never expunge."
The title story is a novella that tracks the life of a man who wanders from the chic precincts of West Los Angeles to the far less glamorous suburbs around Long Beach. Richard Leviton meets Jaimie Gorski during the abortive presidential campaign of Jerry Brown -- a wholly fitting setting for the beginning of a flawed relationship that (rather like Brown himself) never really goes away. For Richard, Jaimie remains "a vaguely romantic, if dark, angel of recuperation -- the goddess of the coast and the germ of a bag lady." But when he encounters her again in middle age, she is "standing knee-deep ... in regrets" and "batting at demons." Fatefully, Jaimie's adolescent son and his girlfriend carry the same dance of disappointment into the next generation.
And in a stunning concluding scene, Richard discovers that the rabbi to whom he has turned for succor is just as star-crossed as any of the benighted souls to whom he tries to offer consolation -- the rabbi, too, has failed at love and marriage. "The only whole heart is a broken heart," he tells Richard. "The Rebbe Kotzher said that. She left five years ago. She left when I spoke in tongues.... And clapped my hands and barked like a dog."
All of the stories are set in Southern California, a place Rifkin knows well and sketches with deft strokes. La Jolla is "a town halfway between naval history and Pablo Neruda." A stroll on a Saturday morning in the San Fernando Valley is an expression of social isolation: "With all the sidewalks in Encino, you could still be the only person in town out on the street." And he displays an impressive grasp of the semiotics of Southern California suburbia: "[N]o one in Lakewood trusted you if you had ideas about living for a purpose."
Indeed, Rifkin's sense of place is suffused with a sense of self. Richard Leviton, for example, experiences Signal Hill as a place of exile from the higher (and hipper) elevations of Los Angeles: "[A]round certain curves it could look like the Hollywood Hills, but only just enough like the Hollywood Hills to break Leviton's heart."
Grim as they may sound in summary, the stories in "Signal Hill" are redeemed by Rifkin's compassion, insight and humor. Above all, they are hauntingly beautiful, the work of a gifted storyteller with a sharp eye but a tender heart.