James Frey’s first foray into the world of books, his supposed autobiography, A Million Little Pieces, was a spectacular debut in that it provoked that rarest of events: a genuine literary scandal. The book, and its follow-up My Friend Leonard, were grim tales of a life of addiction, depravity and criminality, written with uncompromising turbo-charged power. Endorsed by literary kingmaker Oprah Winfrey in her book club, A Million Little Pieces went on to swiftly achieve best-seller status.
There was only one problem: the life and the events depicted had little to do with the author. The Smoking Gun webite undertook a thorough investigation, through court reports and interviews with local police officials, producing a damming rebutal of Frey’s incarceration claims. Old cohorts were hunted down, who testified to his unremarkable rather than mispent youth. The biographies amounted to more than a white suburban kid’s petty exaggerations of his misdemeanours; The Smoking Gun highlighted many outright fabrications, one of which was particularly shameful and highly distressing to the friends and family of a girl who had died in a road accident.
Frey was originally feted by Hollywood and many of its stars, excited by what they saw as the real deal in that chamber of artifice. His transformation from literary hero to pariah was complete when his publishers were compelled to admit to the falsifications in the books and even took the unprecedented step of offering purchasers their money back. Frey gamely reappeared on Oprah, where the host, livid at being cast as an unwitting stooge in the scam, tore strips of both him and his publisher, eliciting sheepish confessions. For the US reading public, it was a little bit like finding out that Frank McCourt grew up in a luxury penthouse on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
You would perhaps think that the only occasion where James Frey might have been inclined to look at a pen and paper again would have been filling in a bookie’s slip with a trembling hand. But Frey has shown remarkable resiliance, producing Bright Shiny Morning, a work of fiction which carries the disclaimer: ‘nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable.’ That acknowledgement is of course redundant here, belonging instead in his first two works.
The amazing thing about Bright Shiny Morning is that it is an absolute triumph of a novel. In fact, it’s so good that it makes Frey’s real life resurrection from crooked biographer to great American novelist far more impressive that his fantasised one from down-and-out drug monster to best-selling writer. Freed from the responsibity of getting the facts right, Frey, a natural novelist to his fingertips, hits the deeper truths with this honest, vibrant and tender portrait of Los Angeles and the American Dream. It’s Bright Shiny Morning, not A Million Little Pieces, that is the real tale of stunning redemption.
As Frey depicts a litany of lost and hopeful souls who are sucked into the City of Angels, the novel becomes a comprehensive biography of that most alluring and dangerous metropolis. He understands L.A., its attractions and dangers, and the diverse aspirants who try to navigate its choked freeways, cheap motels, seedy apartments and walled and gated mansions. The touching love story of runaways Dylan and Maddy and the well-meaning beach bum Joe, who woke up one morning thirty years older, runs side by side with the tale of the predatory closet-homosexual movie star, Amberton, and his sham business partner wife, Casey. Then there is the self-conscious cleaner Esperanza, abused by a rich, racist white woman before finding an unlikely but convincing love.
The book contains historical vignettes of LA, tracing its corruption and its foibles, until -as always happens in the best novels- the city itself becomes a character; a wild and volatile multi-tentacled beast capable of bestowing great hurt -and the odd chunk of real love- on those who get too enmeshed in it. By its end the reader has been privy to that rarest of things: a searing critique of the world we’ve created, yet an uncompromising affirmation of our humanity.
Bukowski has been cited as one of his literary antecedants, but the truth is that he’s never written a novel quite as good as Bright Shiny Morning. The voice is assured yet compassionate, and only occassionally slips out of register, usually when Frey falls back into the showboating sneer of A Million Little Pieces:
“At the turn of the century, when opium and cocaine were outlawed (yeah, both used to be legal, woohoo, whoohoo), and alcohol and prostitution became the area’s primary business…”
Such lapses, though, are very rare in a beautifully disciplined and weighted novel, propelled forward with great narrative skill. It can be no exaggeration to say that Bright Shiny Morning amounts to the literary comeback of the century. It may be a pitiful weakness that led James Frey down the road to deciet in A Million Little Pieces, but by penning his own ressurection, he has demonstrated unquestionable courage and a wholly justfied self-belief in his skills as a writer. If his story tells us anything, its that being a deluded fantasist and pathological liar might be a disadvantage for a biographer, but it’s perhaps a decided asset for a novelist, if they can write, and Frey most certainly can.
As hard as it may be for many to swallow, particularly those who place a premium on personal integrity, James Frey is probably one of the finest and most important writers to have emerged in recent years. Nobody likes to be conned, but real lovers of enlightened, cutting edge contemporary fiction who elect to miss Bright Shiny Morning on the basis of the myriad deceptions contained in A Million Little Pieces, are cutting of their noses to spite their faces.
Originally featured in the Guardian.