When James Frey imploded as a memoirist in 2006, many said his "A Million Little Pieces" should have been -- and perhaps initially was -- presented as a novel, and that Frey -- a sometimes screenwriter -- was, both by nature and design, a fiction writer. "Bright Shiny Morning" (Harper, 512 pages, $26.95) is his first official book of fiction. If it's not quite a novel, less believable in its way than his "augmented" memoir ever was, there's no doubt it's a work of Frey's imagination. Ironic, isn't it?
Set in contemporary Los Angeles, "Bright Shiny Morning" is not a cohesive narrative but a compilation of vignettes of several characters who have come to the city to fulfill their dreams. Some examples: Dylan and Maddie, madly-in-love Midwestern runaways who survive through the kindness of near strangers; Esperanza, a Mexican-American maid tortured by a body that could have been drawn by R. Crumb; a group of drunks and junkies who create a community behind the shacks on Venice Beach; Amberton Parker, a hugely famous married movie star who is secretly -- you guessed it -- gay. Interspersed with these rotating portraits are random historical and statistical factoids (which better have been fact-checked, even if there is a nudge-nudge, wink-wink disclaimer up front: "Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable") about L.A.: that, for example, "approximately 2.7 million people live without health insurance" and "there are more than 12,000 people who describe their job as bill collector in the City of Los Angeles." Frey's intention, it seems, is to create an onomatopoetic jumble, a cacophony of facts and fiction, stats and stories, that replicate the contradictory nature of the place they describe.
I expect, given the sharpness of the knives that some critics have out for Frey, that many will say the book flat out doesn't work. First off, there's that voice, the hyperbolic, breathless, run-on, word-repeating voice that was much better suited to a memoir (or even a novel) in which the hero was a hyperbolic, breathless alcoholic and drug addict. And then there's the frat-boy swagger turning up here, too, so faux-cynical as to be naïve: the gang father's attaboy about his 5-year-old son's desire to be a cold-blooded killer, and the prurient, adolescent take on sex. (And couldn't someone have stopped him from exclaiming "woohoo" after some of his "fun" and "not fun" factoids?)
Yet the guy has something: an energy, a drive, a relentlessness, maybe, that can pull readers along, past the voice, past the stock characters, past the clichés. "Bright Shiny Morning" is a train wreck of a novel, but it's un-put-downable, a real page-turner -- in what may come to be known as the Frey tradition.
Sara Nelson is editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly.