Little Pieces of Los Angeles, Done His Way
By JANET MASLIN
Published: May 12, 2008
He wrote a book but it was bad, liar bad, faker bad, it got him in trouble. A million little pieces. It was the name of the book. It was also how hard he got hit. He had to sit there on the couch. Everybody saw. The television celebrity book club woman got mad, she let him have it. He had to sit there on the couch. He squirmed, he cringed. Everybody watched, everybody blamed him. Then it was over. Then he was gone.
He waited. They forgot about him. He tried again.
In the 1930s Los Angeles is the film capital of the world. F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby,” comes to live there. He tries to write movies. He fails. He writes a Hollywood novel, “The Last Tycoon.” He says there are no second acts in American lives. He turns out to be wrong.
The million little pieces guy was called James Frey. He got a second act. He got another chance. Look what he did with it. He stepped up to the plate and hit one out of the park. No more lying, no more melodrama, still run-on sentences still funny punctuation but so what. He became a furiously good storyteller this time.
He wrote a big book. He wrote about a city. Los Angeles. He made up a lot of characters, high low rich poor lucky not, every kind, the book threw them together. It was random but smart. Every now and then he would pause the story, switch to the present tense and throw in an urban fact.
Like this: The Los Angeles area has a museum devoted to the banana.
James Frey loved Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski and maybe even John Fante but he didn’t sound like them, he didn’t sound beat or cool. He sounded hopeful. He sounded unguarded, tender. He quit posturing. He stopped romanticizing squalor. He found new energy. He sounded more like Carl Sandburg in love hate thrall with great maddening Chicago than like the usual tough gritty moody chronicler of California’s broken dreams.
He wrote about people who were drawn to Los Angeles and who they were, why they came, what they wanted, whether they got it, if they didn’t get that, then what they got instead. He looked into their hearts. But he didn’t get sloppy, not maudlin. He just made up characters and wrote as if he cared about them desperately. Bright Shiny Morning. A new chance, real or illusory, that’s what they all wanted. Bright Shiny Morning. So he made that the name of the book.
His publisher called it a dazzling tour de force. (Look, somebody had to, if only to create a comeback drama.) But that wasn’t so far off the mark. Even if his publisher maybe could have asked more questions about what the banana museum had to do with anything.
Still, even the stray facts had their artistry. They helped turn this book into the captivating urban kaleidoscope that, most recently, Charles Bock’s “Beautiful Children” was supposed to be. Bright Shiny Morning was mobile and alert to layout, tempo, different voices, how words looked on the page. Different visual styles suited different characters. Some got long litanies of brisk, sharp dialogue. Others got dense, descriptive prose.
Even the one-sentence page had its use here.
The language got sleek and arch when the book described two superstars, Amberton and Casey. A man and a woman, married to each other, best friends both gay no secrets. Everything perfect, supposed to look that way. Prop children. Money houses cars personal assistants nannies yoga teacher everything perfect. Wearing vicuña. Eating ahi tuna. Still Amberton wanted more, got a crush on an ex-football player. All this captured with elegance, with wit. Movie stars. Not so original, so what? So what if the book always made poor people humble decent better than rich spoiled profligate ones?
So there were Maddie and Dylan, young and in love, eking out a living and traveling on a moped, he eventually got a job as a caddy she as a clerk. The book loved them. There was Old Man Joe, homeless guy, living in a bathroom in Venice, Calif., somehow stronger more decent more heroic than the star who plays movie heroes.
And Esperanza, Mexican-American, working as a maid for an old white lady so mean she threw her morning cup of coffee if Esperanza didn’t make it right. But the old lady turned out to have a son. He liked Esperanza, liked treating her like a human being. Maybe he liked needling his mother even better.
There were easy ways a cynical, sentimental crybaby like the million little pieces guy could have told Esperanza’s part of the story. Crisis, violence, redemption, whatever: that’s what he knew about. That’s what he wrote about. That’s what he passed off as nonfiction. That’s why he sounded as if he’d seen too many lousy movies.
So the Bright Shiny Morning guy did it differently. He let the little vignette play out against a big, gaudy, dangerous Southern California backdrop, full of drug-dealing gang-bangers, full of schemers, phonies, rich with a history of robber barons, all of it listed here, all of it stacking the deck against any generosity of spirit. The son steals the maid’s virtue? Been there, read that. They plot against the old lady? Been there too. This novelist wanted something else for Esperanza: he wanted to honor her, fall in love with her, do it with startling sincerity. He wanted to save her.
And it worked.
That’s how James Frey saved himself.