StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith


Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 20, 2008

I submitted the following review of James Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning to Edge Magazine.

They should be publishing it this week.

Most of us know the story. In January 2006, The Smoking Gun website documented how James Frey had lied about many of the events in A Million Little Pieces, a memoir of his time in rehab. A few weeks later, when Oprah offered Frey the opportunity to recant before a national audience, she went from being his foremost supporter to a frontline scourge. For a long time afterwards, memoirists everywhere hid beneath their beds, lest their editors – and the editor’s newly fired fact-checkers – would charge their doors.

I myself wasn’t surprised when the scandal broke. Memoirists from time immemorial have exaggerated, distorted or (like Frey) flat-out lied about the events of their lives. While it’s lousy that egoists gratify their own egos through fabrication, those fabrications are often the stuff of great stories. I enjoyed A Million Little Pieces and its sequel My Friend Leonard, Frey’s account of his friendship with a gay Mafiosi who took him under his wing and later died of AIDS. It is true, however, that the books wouldn’t have packed the same punch if Frey had come right out and called them fiction (romans a clef). Still, Frey’s propulsive, plain-speak narration and unpredictable syntax kept me so spellbound that I read both memoirs in one sitting, each.

In 2008, Frey’s embattled career charges full steam ahead with Bright Shiny Morning, his debut novel and first book since the Oprah/Smoking Gun debacle. Through a series close-ups and panoramic snapshots of a cavalcade of characters and cityscapes, Frey attempts to give us the whole sanguinary city of Los Angeles in 501 pages. To buttress this highly ambitious undertaking, Frey presents whole chapters worth of factoids about the history and demographics of L.A. Frey calls these his “Fun Facts” and “Not-So-Fun Facts” about Los Angeles—many of which are of questionable veracity, given Frey’s penchant for tall tales and the book’s tongue-in-cheek disclaimer, “Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable.” Unfortunately, Frey dumps these clumpy clods of information en flagrante between scenes, rather than weaving them into the stories themselves and directly connecting them to his characters’ lives.

For the most part, Frey’s characters are stock. Many of them are quick sketches, archetypal Los Angeleans, who pop up for a page or two and then disappear like angels—or fallen angels. But even the main groups of characters, whose paths never cross, suffer from a bad case of banality. Dylan and Maddie are two-dimensional figures: 19-year-old lovers who hop into a truck and head west, leaving Ohio and their abusive homes in the rearview mirror. The two lovebirds somehow land in the snake pits of Los Angeles, where their chances of climbing out alive are almost none. There’s Old Man Joe, a Chablis-swilling wino whose attempts at lending a helping hand backfire big-time on Venice Beach. There’s young Esperanza, a Mexican-American martyr figure with deformed thighs, who you’ll wish would just slap the living s**t out of the white heiress, Mrs. Campbell, who never passes up a chance to degrade Esperanza as she scrubs the marble floors of the Campbell mansion in Pasadena.

Movie magnate Amberton Parker is the most caricatured of the cast. He’s got it all: perfect looks, a Harvard education, starring roles in blockbuster movies, Academy Awards, more millions than the GNP of most second-world nations. But he has a terrible secret. (Okay, I’ll tell you.) His three kids were manufactured in petri dishes and, under cover of the night, he sleeps with men—the younger the better—while actress wife Casey sleeps with women. They can and do have anyone and everyone they want. Back out of going to bed with them, you’ll never work in Hollywood again. But karma bites Amberton’s ass when he meets Kevin, an African-American talent agent and former college football star whom Amberton keeps stalking with the highest-end gifts even though Kevin is straight and won’t sell himself into white slavery. Did Frey buy this plot from Jackie Collins? To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, one would have to have a heart of stone to witness Amberton’s desperation and not burst out laughing.

The run-on and oddly punctuated sentences that drove Frey’s memoirs with such wicked compulsion are back for the attack in Bright Shiny Morning. Only, this time, the style becomes a gimmicky distraction in the third person, where a narrator has to be far more detached and documentary. Frey also refuses to indent or use paragraph breaks. His outré techniques come off more as branding than literary innovation. This self-indulgence ultimately detracts from his enormous talent.

In Bright Shiny Morning, Frey shows far more compassion and sensitivity toward his characters than in previous books. Yet he also keeps flashing the tired, old bravado of his former self: the guy with the hammerlock on the underbelly. Having said all this, let me qualify that Frey deserves a lot of credit, not only for his research, but also for reaching beyond racial and socioeconomic boundaries to round out his grizzly picture of Los Angeles. We know from Frey’s past writing that he is a big fan of War and Peace and he shows a lot of guts in trying to pull off a project of that magnitude. Much like War and Peace, the individual chapters of Bright Shiny Morning are brief, adding up to a sprawling landscape of characters and classes, all of whom are vying for survival, success, or love. But, even at the expense of his cherished bravado and branding, Frey needs to deepen his characters and make Los Angeles more of a savage organism than a compendium of random facts and skeleton sketches.