The five stories Alan Rifkin has assembled for his debut collection, Signal Hill, might be a suite to the midlife crisis. All the protagonists are fortysomething men who've never quite been there, never quite done that. "There is a point where hopelessness and strength look like the same thing on me," says the narrator in one story. Rifkin didn't give the guy a name, I can't remember the title, and somehow that both multiplies and distributes the load of his heavy truth. So does the fact that any of Rifkin's leading men could have said it. But one convenient sad-sack demographic cannot contain the perspectives these going-nowhere men have collected in the sweet and meantimes of their lives. The melted moods of courage and surrender soak every character on all 152 pages of Signal Hill. So does the curse of thinking too much for your own good or your own happiness—or your own serenity, anyway. As Rifkin relentlessly streams our consciousness through his characters' various gauntlets of self-assessment, he inevitably reveals that midlife is a mixed bag. It's where everybody is all the time.
Rifkin lives in Long Beach and has made his living as a journalist, writing for most of the hip Southern California periodicals, but he has never been satisfied with the fat, simple fact. He prefers to seek truths by sifting through the details and complications. Setting off into a Rifkin magazine or newspaper account, then, usually carries a risk. You never know if you are going to be profoundly touched or confoundingly tortured. A lot of it depends on your state of mind—you've got to be ready to read Rifkin. The only guarantee is his craftsmanship, which inevitably is exquisite.
Fiction untethers Rifkin completely from the journalist's obligation to cross-referenced veracity, and in Signal Hill, he takes this freedom on a pretty intricate test drive. The only story in the book with anything like an arc is the title piece, and distilling that into something that might reasonably be called a "plot" is a challenge. Rifkin doesn't write the way you would tell a story so much as in the way you would think it. At his best, he gives us something even more eerily intimate than that—the sense of eavesdropping on people talking to themselves. And so, in the title story, a thrice-divorced man with old dreams and a young son decides to buy an SUV with his inheritance and suddenly finds himself between the smoking wreckage of a long-ago sexual fling and the flickering spark of a love and a life that might finally be true. Well, that's where the guy is trying to find himself. But get a brainload of what Rifkin has him up against:
It was a scout-like ambition to become Loyal to Himself, to be a person whose hair on the last day would fall the way God had arranged it when he floated in the womb. But he worried, being a reflexive worrier, that it might already be too late for simplicity, that people might be inseparable from the personalities they created through decades of cowardice and self-betrayal. . . . If he didn't have courage it only meant he really didn't want it enough. But he envied the courage of saints, the faith that his own willingness to be a fool for his soul would guide him and provide for all his needs, or else his needs weren't worth talking about in the sight of the ages.
Rifkin spins similar webs of strangling hyperconsciousness around the experiences and motivations of the characters in his other four stories. "The Honor System" recalls a couple's absurdly birdlike mating dance of how-we-first-met flirtation—at Badwater in Death Valley, the lowest point in North America. They literally bump into each other and fall down together onto the desert floor, while another unnamed narrator exclaims "Whoa" . . . and then sets to thinking, "Saying 'Whoa' instead of 'I'm sorry' is something my Westwood therapist would call growth. I'm more skeptical about it. I felt sorry the way men habitually feel sorry, part of a consciousness of being clumsy around acts of suffering; learning a new noise to make before falling down doesn't seem like big growth to me."
"The Idols of Sickness" confesses a childhood fascination with an early 20th-century medical encyclopedia that happened to be laying about the house—an attraction that became so extreme it ignited imitation of the book's pictures and descriptions. But, of course, it wasn't only that:
Privately I felt troubled about the children in the photos. Captured for all time in that haunted state. Throw out the photographic record, and sickness might be only a perturbance, the shadow of a cloud if not a misperception completely, and here some doctor's photographer had caught it, ghostlike documenting evil for generations of physicians. The pages were dusty and heartless. No one in the house had been known to open its covers but me.
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In "Sonority," the narrator drags himself back and forth over the broken glass of a love affair he'd only engaged in to the point it could hurt him—in exactly the way it is hurting him now: "It's hard to describe the gravity of what I was feeling—that sense of injustice all tied up with love. It was less a matter of loving Ann than an almost anonymous love wish for her, wanting Ann to feel love without me in the way. And all the trite futility of that."
"After the Divorce" is Rifkin's most straightforward and sympathetic tale. A boy on the edge of adolescence goes for an audacious walk, leaving the mother's house that a custody agreement assigned him and arriving unannounced at the father's house (now inhabited by stepsons) that he'd only entered on designated weekends—asserting the childhood that life had assigned him. Considering it, at least: "With enough courage, a son could force a father's hand—asking, for instance, to live with him. He'd never offered, but when two men, or a man and his adolescent son, made a meal together in a kitchen, as we had done two or three times, the question was clearly alive."
Sometimes, wading through this stuff feels like reading's equivalent of a tag-team wrestling match featuring Raymond Carver and John Bradshaw against Frederick Busch and Dr. Phil. But the next times—and despite its density, I was lured back to the stories in Signal Hill again and again—all the talking begins to untangle. It's meditative like that. Rifkin doesn't assign his characters convenient explanations for how they arrived in their emotional predicaments. Their pathologies aren't classified according to drug of choice or psychiatric diagnosis. The simple wisdom in Rifkin's book derives from its eschewance of excuses. The lack of such handles makes his characters tiresome at times, but your impatience with them is undermined by your own self-recognition. That's you in there, riding the parallel rail on the same runaway train of thought.
Signal Hill by Alan Rifkin; City Lights Books. Paperback, 152 pages, $12.95.