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Originally published Saturday, May 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

James Frey's "Bright Shiny Morning" falls apart

"Bright Shiny Morning" by James Frey Harper, 501 pp., $26.95 A young couple who lift $20,000 from a biker gang. A predatory gay superstar...

Bloomberg News

Author appearance

James Frey

The author of "Bright Shiny Morning" will appear with novelist/memoirist Josh Kilmer-Purcell at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eight Ave. Tickets are $5 — sponsored by Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com). Frey will also appear at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at a "Words & Wine" event at the W Hotel (info: 206-632-2419; www.kimricketts.com).

"Bright Shiny Morning"

by James Frey

Harper, 501 pp., $26.95

BOOK REVIEW |

A young couple who lift $20,000 from a biker gang. A predatory gay superstar whose latest fixation is a football hero. An adorable Chicana with thighs the size of tree trunks. A homeless wino who wants to save a meth-addled teen.

These are the major characters and plot lines of James Frey's "Bright Shiny Morning." Frey is the disgraced author of "A Million Little Pieces," the Oprah Winfrey-endorsed memoir that turned out to be partly made up.

"Bright Shiny Morning" is a meaty social novel in the Tom Wolfe/Richard Price mold, though Frey's manic run-on sentences can't rival theirs in terms of craft. Its subject is Los Angeles from the bottom to the top, and unless you have ice in your veins you'll find its 501 pages of tiny print compulsively readable. I did. By page 100 I was telling myself, "I love this book!" By page 300 I was restless. By the end I pretty much hated it.

Why? Because Frey doesn't deliver on the expectations he raises. He doesn't even seem to know he's raised them. At first, as you weave among the major stories and the hordes of minor ones, you all but quiver with anticipation: How's he going to tie this all together? Little by little you deflate as you realize: He's not.

Nobody in one plot so much as brushes against someone in another plot. The themes in the free-standing essays bear little or no relation to the narrative sections.

Literary insanity?

Only a novelist at the edge of literary sanity would introduce on page 438, at a point when his parallel plots are barreling toward their climax, an 11-page essay on the L.A. art scene (a topic that has zilch to do with the rest of the book). Or follow it with a six-page list of soldiers who have been treated at local VA hospitals, with their maladies (less than zilch).

In general, the essays (on youth gangs, city districts, celebrity train wrecks and so forth) are less insightful than the tales; Frey seems to have a natural grasp of character. But although he's a gifted storyteller, he has only two modes, saccharine and brutal. He's also got two modes as an essayist, amazed (ah the depravity/diversity/splendor of L.A.!) and cynical:

"Everybody loves a scandal," he writes. "Even if you try to turn away, you can't, when you try to ignore it, you find it impossible. You know why? Because it's awesome, hilarious, awful ... The bigger the better, the uglier the more fun, the more devastation the better you feel."

Any particular scandal come to mind?

Raw talent

Despite its moronic politics (if you can call them that), in which poor equals virtuous and rich equals bad, "Bright Shiny Morning" looks less like a failure of writing than one of editing. Frey is a prototypical raw talent — a writer who can churn out readable prose by the ream but has no idea how to shape it or imbue it with taste. So he needs a strong editor, and either he didn't get one or he was too bullheaded to accept the advice he was proffered.

The simplest solution to the book's structural problems (though probably not the most commercial one) would have been to disentangle the components, slap on a table of contents and sell it as what it is: a compendium of pieces — some long, some short, some fiction, some reflection — about Los Angeles.

A more ambitious possibility (and a bigger chore) would have involved sending Frey back to his desk to finish up the job the way a novelist with any pride in his work is supposed to: by weaving the disparate parts into a coherent whole. Slicing them up and jumbling them, which is all he's done, doesn't turn "Bright Shiny Morning" into a novel. It turns it into a mess.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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