on Starlite Terrace, stories by Patrick Roth, translated by Krishna Winston (Seagull Books)

Born in 1953 in Freiberg im Breisgau and brought up in Karlsruhe, Patrick Roth arrived in Los Angeles as an exchange student in 1975 to study English and Romance languages. Soon he was studying film instead. In 1984, Roth’s fledgling company produced its one and only film, the 60-minute “The Killers,” based on Charles Bukowski’s story of the same title from the late 1960’s. Roth directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Bukowski who also played the role of “the author.”

RothKillers.jpgAlthough Roth’s film-making ended with “The Killers,” the novels and stories he has published over the years have remained loyal to the cineastic idiom. In particular, Roth seems reflexively attached to the climactic moment. Once you have read the first story in Starlite Terrace, you know that an ultimate dramatic scene will also appear in the next three tales — and yet, Roth usually exerts enough counter-tension on the reins not only to create surprises but to allow the unstated to simmer. But don't expect Bukowski's grittiness.

Starlite Terrace is an apartment complex in Sherman Oaks, imagined near the La Reina Theatre (which was featured in the 2012 film “The Artist”). Narrated by an unnamed renter, each of Roth’s stories concerns one or more of its dwellers, and all are people who have seen better days. Since Roth’s boyhood in post-war Germany was a locus of wide scale displacement, I wonder if that familiar uprooted spoilage is embodied in his L.A. characters, treading water after the big wave to Malibu has passed.

RothApartment.jpegIn “The Man at Noah’s Window,” residents Rex, Pete and the narrator meet for breakfast at Noah’s, their restaurant haunt down the street. Roth has little interest in coloring his locations; the reader gets only the essentials and thus provides his own sets. The narration is more suited to conveying action and dialogue. This story hinges on Rex’s insistence that his father had been a hand-double for Gary Cooper in High Noon. Then, Rex wanders among memories of his estranged parents. Had he been named for the Rex Theater in Madera, conceived on the very night his parents, not yet wed, attended a movie there? Had his mother been a prostitute? Then suddenly, the story pivots as Rex recalls encountering Cooper in a shop. The actor, dying of cancer, had stopped by to say farewell to friends on Rodeo Drive.

Here the narrator inserts himself briefly into the commentary: “I understood that the story about Cooper that Rex had told me dissolved into nothingness. Like all stories. And that that would be my story. That nothing could be saved. By any story. The loneliness of the man who followed another lonely man, that was my loneliness. The tale of an impending death, that was mine. The terminal illness, our conversation, which circled, encircled us, coming towards me. And here, only moments before, had caught up with me.”

Roth.jpegWhen Roth is on his game, his stories resonate with fate and coincidence, ever-diminishing echoes of significance. Despite the excerpt above, his narrator withholds himself except when describing a dream or a brief sensation triggered by the story at large. In “Solar Eclipse,” a resident named Moss McCloud reveals his backstory — a wife who ran off with his daughter, an opportunity to pay a mobster to murder the wife, a life of longing to see his daughter again. McCloud had been an actor turned casting agent, and now has little to claim as his own. As his characters peel off their memories, Roth deftly enacts the past as near-present action, visually stripped down, as if specified by a severe director.

In a 1995 interview, Roth avowed his strict attraction to the illuminating moment by evoking Nietzsche’s metaphor of the “slow arrow.” As Roth put it, “They don’t really stop when they pierce you. They may initially wound you, may make you aware you’ve ben hit, but in their slowness they make you forget they’re inside, make you forget they’re moving. They are patient in their run, they are sure of their goal. They will transfix and transform you by the time they’re ‘through.’” In Starlite Terrace, those arrows approach their fateful targets.

RothPool.jpegIn “The Woman in the Sea of Stars,” a former executive secretary at 20th Century Fox named June sits by the pool at the Starlite Terrace on her seventy-seventh birthday, visited by a niece she had never met. The woman’s recollections of Hollywood are a litany, perhaps even too much of a fact-based catalog. It is hard to peer into her, such is the density of memory as story, especially Hollywood lore with its purveyance of illusion as business. A simple, desperate, and moving action at the end shifts the story’s eyes to June’s solitary courage.

There is much of Hollywood in Starlite Terrace — but also, the European’s coldness toward the dream of a life other than this one. “America and Americans have shaped my themes, my views,” Roth said. “My foundation, my language memory, my view of the spirit is German. My car is American. So is my view of the body, of things material. My view of the world.” He writes in German out of fear of losing his mother tongue. His writing, he says, “needs a translator who will give them his or her own language spin in order to make them come alive in English.” Krishna Winston has done a fine job in this regard.

Roth writes with the economy of a producer who knows he must get his crew out of the studio on time and on budget — and who will take no risk that would demand too much of his audience. It is as if Roth wants to please too many of us — those who want the surface texture of film, and those who want the psychic drift of revealed actuality. Nevertheless, his able pacing of the slow arrow can penetrate the reader.

[Published July 13, 2013. 184 pages, $19.00 hardcover.]

Re Terrace

Thank you for this review. Interesting the Bukowski connection. Roth says that his language memory is German; it's curious that his memory-language (which given his American experience of life might as well be English) is still German as well.