I got out of bed this morning and told Katherine, “Hey, I think my foot is bet-” At which point my gouty big toe slammed into the table leg. When I finished howling and bouncing around on the other leg, I amended my earlier statement: “Well, OK, not so much better now-ow-ow-ow.”
Hobbling out to the computer, I checked my email and found a forwarded article from the Irish Times, a gushing interview with James Frey.
Frey the Irrepressible is back with a new book, Bright Shiny Morning. I knew that; I even read his book, because Frey and I go way back. But BSM, BS for short, was so silly it wasn’t even funny, so I thought I’d beg off reviewing it. I’ve kicked Frey with my gouty foot over and over again; what’s the use? He’ll always be famous; he’s too stupid to absorb criticism. Hell, he withstood a scolding from Oprah herself and came back hamming it up worse than ever–what could I do to him? I’m old, dead broke, sick and unknown. Any pretense of superiority I ever felt toward Frey is looking very wobbly right now.
In Darwin’s world, “adaptive” has no fixed characteristics. The Irish Elk’s livingroom-sized antlers were adaptive once. And clearly Frey’s shameless, mindless vanity are adaptive now. I don’t have to like that fact-bring on the nukes, I say-but it’s there, right in my sagging ugly face, and as I grow older, poorer and sicker, it becomes ever more difficult to feel superior to the bastard just because I tweaked his nose a couple of times with my reviews. I might as well have been firing paintballs at Godzilla.
It’s the Irish Times angle that made me angry enough to limp once more into the breach. Of all the vile publications in the world, this may be the very worst. It’s always been in business to lick the occupier’s boots; it would be more honest to call it The Irish Thames. The editors devoted page after page to vilifying every outbreak of self-respect among the Mere Irish of the Six Counties, while expending copious tears on every reverse suffered by the Imperial Masters as they went about ruining as much of Ireland as they still controlled, avidly tinkering with their “little evil in a mean way,” like Saruman in the Shire.
And, as I was surprised to find when I lived in Dublin a few years ago, it’s not even very well done. For all the Anglo-Irish deadender elite’s smug certainty of its own eloquence, the prose spewed out by the Thames’s columnists is remarkable more for its rabid Unionist madness than any of that lilting cadence crap. When Conor Cruise O’Brien died, they declared a century of mourning for the mad old fascist. It made way too much sense they’d embrace Frey the Fraud.
What an alliance: Eoghan Harris, Ailis O Hanlon and Frey, the worst fiction writer since Norman Mailer had the decency to die. Gout makes you feel hot and angry and paranoid, and sitting there with my toe throbbing as I read this interview with Frey, it was easy to imagine a vast conspiracy of the mean and stupid, a Hollywood/Sandymount united front, no-talent hands across the ocean.
The one saving grace of the Times’s interview with Frey is that the woman assigned to beard this literary lion can barely, barely resist calling him a little sissy. She’d been expecting the bad boy of American lit and she gets this runt “with a hint of a lisp” who seems “diffident, almost demure”-“demure”? Ooooh, that would hurt, if Frey were capable of reading English, processing language or any of that fancy-pants stuff.
Luckily for him, he trundles along like a West LA armadillo, impervious to anything except adulation. The interviewer, one Fiona McCann, alludes to the fact that Frey’s characters in Bright Shiny Morning “have been decried as clichés,” a criticism which would seem to be borne out when she lists the main characters: “two small-town kids looking for a new start, a homeless drunk with a conscience, the daughter of immigrant Mexicans working her way through college as a maid, and a successful film star with a secret.”
Frey, though, prefers the word “archetypes”-a word meaning “clichés who have absorbed some Jung, probably in the form of hemp oil while getting a sensual massage.”
She could have pressed Frey here, in a non-massage manner, but with the Irish Times‘s employee’s instinctive inclination to facilitate lies, stupidity and evil no matter what its form, she finds herself rather drawn to this tiny, lisping, “demure” bundle of self-promotion. It’s a shame, really; any British journalist would have made Frey sweat at this point, and if you recall what British MP George Galloway did to poor old ex-Senator Norm Coleman (I keep remembering him as “Norm Simpson” for obvious reasons), you know what a trained Brit torturer can do to an ordinary waterboardin’ US hick. Galloway vs. Coleman was like watching Royce Gracie systematically snap every bone in the hands, arms and legs of some musclebound American wannabe tough guy.
Alas, Fiona ends her softball interview not with Raging Bull gore but with a fadeout on a clinch with Frey. Gross but true, folks; the grilling turns into Harlequin Romance last-page stuff (though they call it Mills & Boon over there):
“Frey is suddenly coy, or is this apparent circumspection simply another way of courting controversy? This is, after all, his chance to get a proper dig at the woman who pulled no punches when she had hers. So is he going to tell us the truth behind this particular story? “Not as long as that tape recorder is on.” So I turn it off.”
Yeah, like the old joke about Pinnocchio, Fiona whispering in Frey’s ear, “Lie to me, big boy!” Ah well, it’s a bad world and my foot hurts and I just googled a charming Wikipedia page on “tophus,” the chalky deposits of crystallized piss that form on the joints of the gouty.
I’ve got one on my toe, and you would be amazed how it has altered my disposition for the worse. There was a photo of one of these tophii being chipped off a kneecap, the sharp little screwdriver point so clean compared to all that organic mess, cutting into what looked like a wad of ossified gum on the underside of a desk. This is your toe on gout. “Sometimes tophi break through the skin and appear as white or yellowish white chalky nodules.”
“So,” to quote Bill Murray in Caddyshack, “I’ve got that goin’ for me.”
But gout or no gout, old herd-robber juices were surging in my blood, clogged as it is with beautiful little floating crystals of uric acid. All this Frey talk was making me antsy, hobbling to the kitchen to make more two-bag tea, get the old head-gland secreting again. It’s probably the way a gouty coyote feels when the caribou scent wafts along again: you may be old and sick, but the herd seems as big, strong and impregnable as ever, and it’s your miserable godgiven job to do something about that. If all you can do is hit Godzilla with a paintball, you do it. It’s better than cheering his progress like the sucker horde does.
I knew where Frey’s novel was in our bedroom because I picked it up just a week ago. Used it to kill a spider that had taken up residence between the wall and the ceiling just over my head. When you spend as much time in bed as I do, you object to looking up at an archnid mobile, damn Addams family décor. So I looked around for a book to press it into the ceiling with. I have lots of big books, but I’d sooner throw a rock at an otter than use Vance’s Dying Earth or Stevens’s Collected Poems to kill a spider. Even the Let’s Go Guide to Mexico with which I while away the ow-ow-hours is semi-sacred; I may be going to Mexico only in the sense that Svidrigailov was going to America, but it’s still a talisman, a last-chance touchstone.
Then I saw a big, white hardbound, perfect for spider-flattening, and wondered for a second what it was. Often you have a sense of how you feel about a book before you remember what it was, and before I remembered that this was Frey’s new novel, Bright Shiny Morning, something about its headstone-like heft made me very depressed: “Oh yeah, THAT thing, whatever it is.” I may know a lot about art, but mainly I know what I don’t like.
To give credit where it’s due, Frey’s 501-page tome did a heckuva job erasing that spider. Not that I blame the spider; it was just doing its job. Like Frey. Like me. Like the idiot Irish Elk, mooning around the forest bumping its ridiculous antler spread into the trees looking for a female to be impressed with all that home carpentery it carried around on its forehead. Not a lot of dignity in Darwin’s world, I understand that.
There’s still a little smear of spider ichor on the back cover of my copy of Bright Shiny Morning. I guess I gave Frey that much respect: using the back cover rather than the front. Because to tell the truth, the real reason I didn’t jump all over Frey’s latest book is that it’s not nearly as bad as the ones that made him famous. A Million Little Pieces was a laughable attempt to play the bad boy by a harmless fratboy dweeb, and the sequel, My Friend Leonard, was one long weep, distilling pure lachrymosia out of the death-I kid you not-of a gay Mafioso pal who, ahem, “adopted” Frey.
Bright Shiny Morning works because Frey has accepted his calling in life: writing pure silent-movie melodrama. Like I said in my first Frey review, the man was born too late. He should have been writing the expository placards in early black-and-white chick flicks: “‘Never!’ cries Nell as the blackguard makes his foul advances.”
Go back to that character list our Irish Times interviewer has thoughtfully provided and you’ll see how nicely Frey’s cast list would suit Louis B. Mayer. His lead couple comes right out of that old John Cougar song-the natural soundtrack for our bard-about “two American kids growin’ up in the heartland.” The girl has an abusive mom so her boyfriend drives with her to LA, city of dreams, etc.
That’s what LA is, in Frey’s mind, a genuine city of dreams. You have to be pretty damn stupid to feel that way, another sign that “adaptive” in Darwin’s world has absolutely no normative connotations. What’s adaptive is…what’s adaptive; it’s one of those valid tautologies-“valid”? It’s a little more than “valid.” You might as well call gravity “valid.”
Every time I fly into LA-back when I had the money to fly-my gut reaction was sheer terror. Bay Area people were supposed to affect this lame Herb-Caen superiority to So Cal, but that was so fake nobody took it seriously outside the Chron. When your ears pop and the descent slants your face into the window, you don’t feel superior staring out at single-family housing from horizon to horizon, you’re terrified. A lot like that arthroscope camera picture of the knee wad getting gouged by that mini-screwdriver. That’s LA. Everyplace must become it, everyone must go. Fact, but not exactly bright, shiny or morning.
It’s been good to Frey, though. “Adaptive”; keep that word in mind. So, though Frey knows absolutely nothing about the lives of flyover state kids from abusive families, he knows they’ll have their troubles and they’ll suffer-he’s not going to shortchange his emotionally constipated fans on the tears-but there’ll be a, you know, b. s. morning at the end. Because, like the lady in the upside down cruise ship said, there’s got to be.
And there’s a movie star with, as Ms. McCann informed us, “a secret.” The oldest, dullest secret in the book, naturally: he’s gay. He falls in love with a black jock-one thing about Frey’s work, there’s a rather embarrassingly transparent infatuation with big, muscular black men running right through it-but it ends happily because the black guy gets a $20 million settlement and the star’s not that sad because, like he said, that’s his fee for one lousy movie and they give him a cute blond jock, just for variety, as his trailer assistant on his next flick.
It all works out, relentlessly, shamelessly, avidly, like roaches breeding–like one of Snoopy’s novels, if they’d actually stretched to 501 pages. In the classic Frey manner, there is some sorrow and some joy in the resolution of the central plot: the boyfriend from the John Cougar song goes to work for a biker who runs a bike shop (I sort of want to write this part as a single, hyphenated word) and steals the biker dude’s ill-gotten gains and the bikers track him down and kill him, aaaawwww, but he and the girl have meanwhile had a baby and she takes it to church and tells it, “Your daddy loved you. He loved you.” In Frey’s world, you can’t trust any assertion not repeated several times. To paraphrase Beetlejuice, “Hey, this isn’t my world, I just failed to adapt.”
Lo and behold, the central character of the book is revealed to be…THE CITY ITSELF! And the 501st and final page is a pee-on to its glory, finishing with an invocation of the city’s power:
“It calls to them.” “It” being Los Angeles, you see, and “them” being the endless striving hordes of eager beavers who continually pour into it, arriving by Pontiac, donkey cart, or by tunneling toward the Coachella Valley Carrot Festival like a certain rabbit of our acquaintance.
Of course, Frey can’t end with that simple assertion, “It calls to them.” If it really called to them, would it call just once? Not in Frey’s world, or Darwin’s, or any Hollywood agent’s. If ya wanna get somebody, ya gotta vibrate their cell till it defibrillates their goddamn heart in their shirt pocket, right? So the book ends with a reminder of the key verb here. I’ve often noted that Frey’s books resemble ESL texts for new learners, repeating the key word until it sinks in:
What do you say to something like this? “I hate the world”? That’d be a good start. “Please, Mister Custer, I don’ wanna go”-another good possibility. Just remind yourself: in Darwin’s world, the word “adaptive” has no normative implications.
Frey, charging four euros to read from his new book. Accepting the adulation of some Irish-Thames reading Trinity College English Major-no, wait, I remember what they look like. Politely signing her copy and moving on to the better-looking press agent they assigned him.
The antlers of the Irish Elk. The Hell with it.
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