Just we when we thought we had seen it all from James Franco - the bong-blitzing stoner of Pineapple Express, the gay lover of Harvey Milk, the limb-hacking nut-job of 127 Hours – he goes and pulls a stunt like this. Is this guy for real? I’m at a rare loss for words, maybe even a little perturbed by his shocking Palo Alto debut. Sure there have been others before him – Ethan Hawke, Nicole Richie, Pamela Anderson, to name but a few of the more ignoble efforts – who had the audacity to think they could parlay their fame into a literary career. But damn, Franco – you’ve done it, man. You got the cojones and the talent to pull off that rarest of Hollywood feats – a book worth reading.
Palo Alto is a collection of short stories about over-priviledged, wholly vapid youths growing-up (or failing to) in the suburbs of San Francisco. Be warned – these stories are not for a timid reader. Franco seems from the onset out to shock his reader, and succeeds disturbingly well. The very first story, Halloween, depicts a youth who, while driving drunk, runs over and kills a woman, and then flees the scene. Later, once he’s sure he’s gotten away with it, the event fades from his memory and he goes on as if it had never happened. And that’s a tame example of what awaits. There are savage beatings outside a raucous house party, vivid sexual predation and humiliation, and racial and religious tensions. Franco leaves no taboo stone unturned in these stories, and despite the uneasiness, perhaps even horror, that these empty and shallow characters invoke in us, it is a very hard book to put down. Franco’s prose is terse, charged, his imagery well wrought and at times even moving. It is clear he aims to be taken seriously as a writer. My major critique of the work is that, even though the first person narrators change from story to story, they all seem to be told by the same person - there lacks between them any distinguishable voice. I have no doubt, after seeing what he is capable of, that James Franco will write a great book. I’m just not sure this is it. What I can say is that the stories in Palo Alto will stay with you a long, long time. Perhaps longer than you’d wish.
Footnote: though a link for Ethan Hawke’s not-awful novel was provided, the author, wanting to protect the honor and dignity of his readers, hereby refuses to facilitate any method whatsoever to obtain, look at, or, help us all, purchase the books of Nicole Richie or Pamela Anderson.