Every fictional work set in L.A. begins with a slow crawl through its streets in the early hours of the morning right after sunrise. Maybe it’s always done this way to emphasize the vast sprawl of the city and highlight the loneliness of its inhabitants, or maybe it’s intended to emphasize that L.A., like New York, is only quiet from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. Starlite Terrace is no different. So sit back, relax, and cruise around the streets of Sherman Oaks and Hollywood with no purpose or direction.
Starlite Terrace provides no new insights about L.A. or literary fiction, but its redeeming quality is that it seems to be a poetic extension of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, featuring analogous characters in their twilight years who were in their prime in the 50s and 60s instead of the 70s and 80s. These characters are as alone and lost as the ones of Less Than Zero, but more attached to reality—probably due to old age.
The work consists of four short stories related by loneliness and despair featuring a cast of residents living in the same apartment complex under the same name as the work. This collection of stories explores the lives of four respective residents through observations and interactions with other neighbors in the apartment complex. Like any apartment complex, the phenomena where neighbors who know the most about you are the ones you speak to the least holds true in Starlite Terrace. The first and last stories in the collection, which focus on loneliness and ill-formed memories based on illusion, frame the inner two stories concerning despair and taking desperate measures to find and attempt to win back lost loved ones.
“The Man at Noah’s Window” concerns Rex, a regular at Noah’s Deli near the apartment complex, who is trying to find substance in his life based on a myth that his father’s hands were used as a stand-in for Gary Cooper’s in High Noon. However, when Rex passes away and the narrator views the film searching for a hand double, he finds no evidence that one was ever used.
“Solar Eclipse” focuses on a father, Moss, who contemplates hiring a hit on his runaway wife, only to be preempted when the hit man is killed at the planned rendezvous point the day before they were to exchange funds.
“Rider on the Storm,” the most disturbing, focuses on Gary, who attempts to track down his lost love after obtaining a gun, only to throw himself into a fire at an L.A. party.
“The Woman in the Sea of Stars” provides murky closure to the collection. June, a collector of wedding gowns who never remarried, randomly reconnects with a relative of her estranged grandfather the day before her 70th birthday. June calls an impromptu celebration that quickly turns macabre when she throws the ashes of her estranged grandfather into the swimming pool of the apartment complex then dives into the water beneath the ashes.
The atmosphere of the novel does have that German Expressionist, early Hollywood noir feel. It is enhanced by Roth’s fleeting references to the German art community that migrated to Hollywood to develop early noir cinema in the 20s and 30s. He also relies heavily on noir film elements such as flashbacks, an unidentified narrator, and characters who are living undesired lives and fulfilling predetermined destinies to progress through the chain of stories.
However, the references to old Hollywood may start to wear on the reader. Therefore, when navigating through this work, brush up on your Hollywood history as it is heavily relied upon and used almost like an additional character in the work. These references are almost to the point of nostalgic reminiscing, leading one to believe that the author has a minor obsession or past with old Hollywood. The references are so plentiful that they might come off as a crutch or some form of intellectual pretension to readers who are not attuned to this time period in L.A:
They say Marilyn1 gazed longingly out her third-floor window every night, that orphanage window on ElCentro, looking across at the illuminated ball. The RJO ball, I mean, the globe over by the corner of Gower and Melrose. It’s still there. In those days, the RKO ball was always lit up at light. Little Marilyn hitched her dream to that ball as she looked out her window, into the light—her dream of being a movie star. Like Jean Harlow.
. . .
I remembered that cemetery on whose sloes D.W. Griffith had shot the Civil War scenes in his silent Birth of a Nation, and realized that, from there, you could see clear across to Burbank. And in the mid-fifties, down below along Pass Avenue, just a stone’s throw from where today the Ventura Freeway cuts through, was the Columbia Rand, with Hadleyville, the town in High Noon, in which Rex’s father was supposed to have served as Cooper’s hand double.
Despite the reliance on esoteric references to the Hollywood of yore and the slow crawling prose (imagine coastal fog slowly rolling over the Hollywood Hills from Santa Monica), the reader will be drawn in either for the all-American allure of all things Hollywood and L.A., despite being a novice of the subject, or by Roth’s ability to slowly and deliberately build a monotonously complex community in such a brief collection of short stories. The reader’s payoff in completing the book is the appreciation for their own relationships, preventing them from being removed and isolated from society like the characters in Starlite Terrace.
1 This is Marilyn as in Marilyn Monroe.