Burdens and Privileges

By Joe DonnellyMarch 9, 2016

Burdens by Water by Alan Rifkin

ALAN RIFKIN has been something of a talismanic figure in my life. I’m sure this is news to him because despite his generous thanks to me in the back of Burdens by Water: An Unintended Memoir for not butchering a couple of his pieces when I was an editor at the LA Weekly (it would take a particularly venal editor to manage that trick), we barely know each other. Long before I had the good fortune of working with his prose, though, I had heard of Rifkin by way of an editor who had sponsored both of us many disruptions ago. This editor was known as a writers’ editor, and also, perhaps, for having a weakness for “cute-boy” writers, some of whom she praised as “Capital W” writers.

Occasionally, I’d do a piece that got the “Capital W” stamp of approval, but I was generally a benchwarmer on that team. Alan Rifkin was the star. Not long after I’d settled into Los Angeles, my editor friend declared over pancakes that Rifkin was, in fact, her favorite living writer. Considering that some of her other favorite writers at the time included Cormac McCarthy and Martin Amis, that was certainly saying something.

We were at the old Farmers Market on Third and Fairfax long before the days of The Grove, content aggregation, and Google analytics. I was relatively new to town and could go to the newsstand there and spend a day thumbing through Los Angeles publications featuring long-form writing that brought the unfathomable city and its swashbuckling citizens into relief — treasure maps and pirate tales. Half of the rags were free, and there was a good chance Rifkin’s work was in one of them.

Still, my editor friend’s bold declaration made my pancakes harder to swallow. Is there a more jealous lot than writers? I poured on the boysenberry and maple syrup and stewed. Wondering about this Alan Rifkin, I pushed bacon around puddles of butter and syrup. Obviously he was a better writer … was he also cuter? Were his gains — as young writers are prone to think — my losses?

An opportunity to indulge in some welcome schadenfreude came several years later when the same editor shepherded into the LA Weekly a Fourth of July piece by Rifkin called “Pool Man.” I was then working at New Times LA, a misconceived and misanthropic attempt by a Phoenix-based retail journalism chain to usurp the shaggy Los Angeles Reader and expand its market share by offering up a cynical cocktail of half-baked libertarianism and editorial ax-grinding.

At New Times, Rifkin’s “Pool Man” was held up for ridicule and trumpeted as an avatar of all that was wrong over there at the LA Weakly (sic). “What is this even about?!” I remember one of the top editors laughing as he waved the issue around and predicted that this sort of decadence — 6,000 words about a fucking pool man! Ha! — spelled the certain end of the LA Weekly. That end, spiritually if not physically, would come years later when the same chain took over the Weekly, Village Voice, and other fine weeklies, and retrofitted them to accommodate its tin-eared dogma.

Back then, I tried to get with the spirit by summoning whatever lingering combativeness I could for my old editor friend’s “favorite living writer” and for the paper that published him. It should have been easy. After all, weren’t there important things going on? The Los Angeles Archdiocese was embroiled in a grotesque scandal that threatened to take down Cardinal Mahony; the San Fernando Valley secession movement was gaining steam; and an invasion of Iraq was starting to take on an air of depressing inevitability. Surely 6,000 words on pool men deserved some disdain.

But, I dipped into the story and before long my toes, torso, shoulders, and head were fully immersed in a piece published in a local weekly that contained the multitudes of a great novel — looming mortality, social dislocation, individualism versus the yearn for connection, class issues, the question of what amounts to success in our society. Heavy stuff lightened by Rifkin’s supple prose, deep empathy, and just the right amount of first-person agency in crafting the narrative.

What he liked best about having a pool route was that he was outdoors, and that there were repair problems just tricky enough to challenge him but not defeat him. What I liked best about riding with John was seeing summer arrive one day at a time and watching him listen to the customers talk about their lives — like Highway to Heaven, a show I’d never actually seen. Plus it reminded me of the consolation I used to feel working in restaurants on New Year’s Eve, to be one of the servers instead of the lonelies at the banquet, with all their good-life expectations.

It might not have been urgent, but to me it felt essential, and I thought it miraculous that there were places where that level of literary journalism was available for free just about anywhere in the city, including the Farmers Market newsstand. Despite what some of my pseudo-populist New Times colleagues may have said about the whole thing, it was the opposite of elitist.

I left for the LA Weekly just a couple months after “Pool Man” hit the streets.


Among the many functions that Alan Rifkin’s Burdens by Water serves is to document a time when there was space in our lives and in our media for such ruminative pieces as “Pool Man,” or “Swimming with Dolphins” (dolphins as they are), or “Measure the Universe” (the universe as it was), or “The Los Angeles Writing Club” (writers as they hope to be), or “Boys in the Hoods” (monks about to be). The works here mostly span the print boom of the early ’90s up through the digital disruptions of more recent vintage. Without belaboring the point, the contemporary structures of publishing have simply made it harder for ace regional writers such as Rifkin to get commissioned far afield to chase stories about ex-pat astronomers in the Atacama Desert or bipeds nosing around with dolphins (and each other) in the Bahamas, or even about born-again Christians in Long Beach who may offer prescriptions for flagging marriages.

These pieces were conceived and birthed when the LA Weekly, Los Angeles Times Magazine, LA Style, California, Details, and the like could midwife them. Half of those magazines no longer exist, and the survivors have been made stingy by the digital economy — as have our attention spans. The utilitarian imperative implicit in the whine I heard at that editorial meeting long ago — what’s this even about!? — now affects almost every aspect of our lives under the tyranny of almighty Google. The result is that there are fewer opportunities for the kind of writing that Rifkin specializes in. It’s a shame, because this blinkered age needs the sort of unifying narratives found in Rifkin’s collection more than ever.

But, to proffer a years-late answer to the lingering question: What’s this even about? I say, exactly! Or, everything! Nothing is fine, too. After all, it’s only life, and here in the Western world existential crisis is our birthright whether we like it or not. It may be the one thing we have in common, and ignoring it won’t make it go away. (Have you seen the stats on suicide, lately?) The point is, journalism was once allowed and even encouraged to tackle Chekhovian concerns, to give purpose to factual storytelling beyond the mere transfer of information. Rifkin comes from that time, and he did it better than most. This collection is a testament to that.

In lesser hands, of course, these pieces would collapse under their own ambitions, but Rifkin’s mastery of narrative architecture and the crystallizing line never let contemplations run away or the prose grow too ponderous. For instance, the “Pool Man” characters mine the “gorgeous crypts” — rectangular, kidney-shaped, or “reedy Xanadus” — of their tenuous middle-class lives for signs that their California dream survives.

“To my childhood self,” writes Rifkin of actual pool men, “their comings and goings looked like the height of Pied Piper free agency. So much so that decades later, blocked and confused, when the Artist’s Way prescribed making list after list of alternative careers, I’d invariably write down: Pool Man.”

Burdens by Water’s thematic concerns — loss and alienation; the struggle against both — align with canonical Los Angeles literature spanning Fante to Didion and beyond. But unlike many of his fellow “Capital W” Angeleno writers, Rifkin isn’t dystopian. As haunted as this collection may be by the specter of Southern California’s fading postwar promise — for example, “E Luxo So” is a stunning portrait of the middle-class and the San Fernando Valley losing their respective grips on each other — Rifkin and his subjects are ultimately pursuing moments of grace more than the material signifiers of the good life. “Unless in the guise of a seeker I was really a chameleon, fodder for gangs and cults and whoever loved me most,” Rifkin writes in “Consider the Richardsons,” his tale of trying to gain surer spiritual footing in deep Christianity.

He often finds what he’s looking for in unlikely places: at a basketball game, during which a Dr. J reverse layup transports in “The Metaphysics of Hang Time”; at the Sepulveda Dam, where he attempts firsthand experience of the glory captured by painter Edward Biberman in his collection Time and Circumstance.

I wanted the dam to have one more chance to perform its optical trick from the freeway, see the periphery glorify the dam, see the era enlarge it — because it isn’t possible for anyone but an artist to find the soul of a dam up close, in its gray, cuspid, concrete supports. I mean that I can’t say how Biberman did it.

Rifkin tells me that when he started looking for patterns in his work that might make sense of a collection, he realized these pieces formed a sort of spiritual quest “by a Valley Jew who both grew up and grew old alongside the LA Dream and all its longings for unity.” He was relieved, he said, “to see that I’d done a few stories in the past that felt connected in a true, humble way to abiding questions and truths.”

It’s fitting that the collection resolves with “Writing in the Dust.” In the piece, Rifkin puts his auto-ontology to the test, measuring his life as a writer against both history and the encroaching imperatives we spoke of earlier. Does it have and hold meaning, even now? To answer, he must grapple with “the possibly delusional proposition that the conflicts most central to the human condition — truth and illusion, spirit and flesh, heaven and earth, race and community — were reaching an endgame mainly in Los Angeles.” In the end, he finds that the burdens of being a Capital W writer in this time and in this place are also its privileges. This collection is proof of that.


Joe Donnelly is an award-winning journalist, short-story writer and Assistant Visiting Professor of English and Journalism at Whittier College.

LARB Contributor

Joe Donnelly, an award-winning journalist and short-story writer, is currently assistant visiting professor of English and journalism at Whittier College. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!