New fiction examines life in Southland corners.
Palm Attitudes;
by Lynell George
Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, Calif.
Jan 6, 2004

If only it were simple. That's just it about Los Angeles -- it's simply not.

The region distinguishes itself as an idiosyncratic expanse persistently in search of itself. It loudly casts about for some sort of cohesive through-line, or at the very least an alibi.

If we think about it in movie terms, it isn't as if L.A. is wanting for a close-up. Plenty of those exist, even the literary variety. The region has been chronicled exuberantly in a slew of novels and nonfiction -- sun-kissed to dour; name-dropping to noir, trumpeting Elysium or forecasting apocalypse.

More accurately, Greater Los Angeles might be in need of an establishing shot. One that takes into account its various layers -- not just industry versus non-industry, or Westside as opposed to East -- but the Southside and the hilly northern reaches; the other beaches, that other Valley, and the hodge-podge in between.

Echo Park, perhaps? West Covina? Signal Hill?

Those freeway exits that so many power right past may not be what we talk about when we talk about Los Angeles. But three recent books with those cities as backdrops offer starkly different visions of the area -- "Signal Hill: Stories" by Alan Rifkin, "Joe's Word: An Echo Park Novel" by Elizabeth Stromme and "Break Any Woman Down" by Dana Johnson.

By virtue of their rich sense of place, their characters' particular yearnings, they flesh out the picture. They consider corners of the region that usually fall off the big-screen projection of Los Angeles. Each, in its own way, helps to broaden our perceptions about what Los Angeles is and what it is to be an Angeleno.

They map a different sort of territory -- both physical and psychological. Not just Hollywood wives and well-heeled, reckless youth -- but the lives of car dealers, swimming pool contractors, hotel maids, roadies and beauticians. It's a Los Angeles just as valid, just as tangible because of its stubborn persistence.

That stick-to-itiveness, that balance of faith and fantasy, is the undergirding of Rifkin's "Signal Hill," a collection of five stories and a novella that wander through various, off-the-scenic- grid "greater Los Angeles" settings -- the blinkingly bright desert, the Valley, Long Beach and Signal Hill, places like the distant rise of the San Gabriels, that are usually hidden from our thoughts by a scrim of smog or smoke.

Born in Chicago, Rifkin grew up in Encino, "the flat part," he quickly distinguishes as he cuts into a tri-tip steak at Phil Trani's, a bustling Long Beach watering hole catering to clusters of chattering guys in sky-blue cardigans and two-tone shoes. For him, the very act of becoming a writer has been twinned with discovering that his place, no matter how seemingly mundane, held import.

For him it was stumbling upon Henry Roth's "Call It Sleep" -- a chronicle of an immigrant Jewish family's struggle in New York City. It didn't inspire, Rifkin recalls, "it infected me. I remember reading it as a senior in college and I didn't want it to end. It was a feeling that I hadn't had before. It made me realize that my own experience was ... write-able."

"Signal Hill" is a swirl of weathered snapshots and touchstones: The deserts to which one escapes to try to wring consciousness or memory dry; the shifting currency of status symbols -- the Valley's swimming pools, its flats and rises; riding the peripheries of the entertainment industries. It all somehow confirms something ... but what?

It presents a Southern California remarkable for its suburban normalness and its tiny worries, which may be confusing to some. "Already I've seen it in the 'Regional' section with the hiking guides," Rifkin says of bookstores, a defeatist smile working across his lean face. "Title doesn't help. Neither does the oil derrick on the cover."

Indeed, the stories' immediate backdrops are workaday, car- dealerships, an Encino backyard, the Queen Mary's fireworks show. That nagging siren of "something bigger," "something's missing" throbs just below the surface. That larger-than-life L.A. seems to rush past, out of the corner of one's eye. It's that double vision, a sort of existential worry, that bears down on his characters.

They try to "get it right" but find themselves pacing metaphorical circles. A father and son dance around an emotional expanse that opens up like a fault between them; couples find themselves bound up in a chase that never seems to end, even when it does physically. When the protagonist of Rifkin's novella, Richard Leviton, reflects on his life, it is place that he uses as an instrument of measure: "Signal Hill was the only elevation at all on the Long Beach side of San Pedro and around certain curves it could look like the Hollywood Hills, but only just enough like the Hollywood Hills to break Leviton's heart."

It wasn't that he set out to write about a contrasting Los Angeles. "It was just that the other has been done to death. And since I'm not a high-paid screenwriter, I've always been marginal in L.A., working some crap job or another. I've always been looking at L.A. from the edges. You become very conscious of what lasts and what doesn't. You have this time-tripping sense of walking on your own grave."

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