Signal Hill Symbolism
Special to the Press-Telegram
by John Canalis
San Gabriel Valley Tribune Voices and Cheers Section
Jan 18, 2004.
"'Signal Hill Stories' examines life between marriages"

Long Beach author Alan Rifkin's "Signal Hill Stories" examines life between marriages from more angles than legendary mathematician Euclid could summon. In his City Lights collection of four short stories and a novella, a man and a divorcee begin a doomed relationship at the lowest point on Earth in Death Valley, an Encino adolescent learns he has become a stranger in his father's house after his parents divorce, a thrice-divorced man must learn whether to place his trust in a rabbi who is either a spiritual seer, a drunk -- or both -- atop Signal Hill.

Long Beach's tiny neighbor provided the author with a large sense of place -- oil wells, car lots, middle-class houses and strange characters -- as well as strong symbolism as the highest elevation in this part of Los Angeles County. "I was drawn to the name for a couple of reasons," ' Rifkin said of his title story. "It functioned in the story for a modern-day Mount Sinai. The mountaintop experience that you" re going to have in Long Beach, you're going to have in Signal Hill."

In "Signal Hill," ' protagonist Richard Leviton is car shopping with a recent inheritance. Though it is clear that Leviton could find a better use for the money, he blows it on a green SUV because he has seen seemingly happy neighbors piling in them. He runs into an ex-girlfriend, sees a bit of himself in her son, who steals his SUV, and has a strange encounter with the son's girlfriend. He's in a place of real loneliness and desperation and entertains the wishful notion that he could impersonate the lives of the people around him," Rifkin said.

Rifkin drives a compact, but he identifies with the character he created. He has seen his parents and himself divorce, though he is now 48, remarried and living with his wife and four children just outside the special white street signs designating California Heights. "I certainly know the loneliness of being a bachelor in suburbia," ' he said. His collection of suburban anomie explores heavy challenges in a light 128 pages.

"There is a point where hopelessness and strength look like the same thing on me," ' Rifkin writes in "Sonority." ' Punches in the gut like that are countered with belly laughs like this: "Saying 'Whoa" instead of 'I'm sorry' is something my Westwood therapist would call growth," he writes in "The Honor System," ' which takes place in Death Valley. "At the risk of being too heavy-handed about this, one of the most imposing symbols of mortality that we have in this part of the world is the desert, and it" s also happily named Death Valley," Rifkin said. In the story, a broken man and a divorcee flirt across the desert floor, he with the wave of his Dodgers cap, she with a curtsy, the exaggerated motions of old films. "The valley enlarged small lives," ' he writes. "There were screenwriting allusions in that story, and I was thinking of the valley as an amphitheater where these archetypal people are performing, so it brings forth these movie gestures and mannerisms that probably belong there," Rifkin said.

Rifkin experienced different neighborhoods and economic classes as a boy. His father, a physician, lived in the Encino hills, while his middle-class mother lived in a flat part of the same community. Rifkin always felt more comfortable in the flats, as does his adolescent character in "After the Divorce." ' "That divorce story was about as close to memoir as fiction can come," ' Rifkin said. "A few people in it were invented. It was one of those stories that, as a creative nonfiction writer, (I thought) should conform to the contours of fiction." ' Though this is his first book, Rifkin is no stranger to writing. His name is on the masthead at Los Angeles magazine, and he has contributed to Details, the Los Angeles Times magazine, Premiere, Salon, LA Weekly and other publications for more than 25 years.

Rifkin is pursuing a master's in creative writing at Cal State Long Beach. The UCLA alumnus is using the program to help complete a novel and would like to go into teaching. The small first printing of his book won strong reviews from noted publications and authors. Jerry Stahl, author of "Permanent Midnight," ' called it "A spot-on, weirdly life-affirming and terrifically written batch of stories. I could read this guy all day." ' Though there is sadness in his stories, those "weirdly life-affirming" ' moments are found in moments of hope throughout the story. In "Sonority," ' the protagonist spends a fall exploring religion, but re-emerges and is chided by his brother for the "autumn of your Christ-like stare."

"Art ends where dogma begins," Rifkin said of writers' suspicion of things divine. "I am far more committed in my spiritual faith than when I began (writing). You never want to proselytize as an artist."

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