Bright Shiny Morning
By James Frey
HarperCollins, 501 pp., $26.95
Author James Frey has had his ups and downs. In late 2005, Frey's "A Million Little Pieces," which he'd initially offered to publishers as a novel and later as a memoir, was embraced by Oprah Winfrey. Frey told Oprah's audience about his many problems with addiction and self-destruction. Frey's book sales skyrocketed. In early 2006, after revelations that he had fabricated parts of his memoir, a shamefaced Frey was back with Oprah. An angry Winfrey publicly eviscerated him, "I feel duped . . . I feel that you betrayed millions of readers." Frey was dumped by his publisher and disappeared.
Frey opens his new novel, "Bright Shiny Morning," with the strongest disclaimer: "Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable." Frey is seeking redemption, but as novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once bemoaned, "There are no second acts in American lives."
Frey's new novel is simultaneously sprawling, absurdly ambitious, and almost impossible to put down. "Bright Shiny Morning" examines Los Angeles from the points of view of several characters from wildly different backgrounds. Through these characters, a homeless alcoholic, a young Hispanic woman seeking dignity and love, a mega-famous Hollywood star whose relentless self-absorption creates the novel's funniest moments, and a couple of ill-fated teenagers who escape their boring lives on the East Coast, Frey offers us a panoramic and profound view of Los Angeles.
Although Hollywood mega-star Amberton Parker is married to a beautiful actress, he's a closeted homosexual who uses his power to prey upon men. As Frey makes clear, Amberton's most in love with himself: While shopping on Rodeo Drive, Amberton "wonders what his life would be like if he wasn't so good-looking. He would probably be a world-renowned English professor at a prestigious Eastern university." The predatory Amberton targets Kevin, an ex-college football player who works for his agent.
After Amberton threatens to get Kevin fired unless he sleeps with him, Kevin reluctantly submits to Amberton's advances. Later, Kevin records their bedroom conversations and brings a multimillion-dollar sexual harassment lawsuit against Amberton, who settles the case in exchange for silence.
Old Man Joe is homeless, loves to drink Chablis, and seeks out answers about why the world is so unjust. In Frey's hands, Old Man Joe becomes a noble, laughable Don Quixote trying in vain to do the right thing in a world that couldn't care less. He meets a teenaged drug addict named Beatrice and tries to help her, but only learns (at a heavy price) that she doesn't really want to be rescued. The chivalric Old Man Joe organizes his homeless friends to rescue Beatrice from a gang, but things go disastrously wrong.
Frey has a skillful way of mixing lightheartedness into his dark narrative. He describes Amberton and his actress wife arriving at a movie premiere: "They follow the unwritten rules of the red carpet: do not step into someone else's picture, do not be exclusive (if one photographer gets to shoot you, they all get to shoot you), smile, pose, engage in playful banter . . . pretend you know and are friends with everyone else on the red carpet (a big happy club of famous people who are great friends and hang out all the time)." Frey understands Hollywood too well to admire it.
Frey's sprawling narrative is brimming with energy, tragedy, and the endless travails and dreams of living in Los Angeles. As Frey writes near book's end regarding the dangers of our celebrity-obsession, "no one goes through it and comes out unscathed, no one goes through it and comes out with their innocence." Frey is a novelist of compassion and unique vision. If there are second acts in American lives, he deserves one.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.