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PALO ALTO by James Franco Kirkus Star

PALO ALTO

By James Franco

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4391-6314-6
Publisher: Scribner

Bleak tales of growing up in the eponymous city.

Actor Franco’s stories are impressive: crisp, spare, depressing. Numerous characters recur from story to story, sometimes appearing as narrators, other times as characters within someone else’s narrative frame. Almost all are teenagers who drift from party to party, who break up friends and who look for a little action, anything to temporarily lift the ponderous boredom of their lives. What’s missing are actions with any larger significance, though at times the more sensitive characters have a wistful awareness of this emptiness. In “Jack-O” narrator Michael drives his grandfather’s old Cadillac DeVille into a wall, desperately hoping to get to some other reality “because this world sucks, and even if you are high it only lets you escape a little bit, it lets you escape enough that you know there could be something better, but it won’t let you into that place.” This black hole of meaninglessness drives the characters to do what they do. Their world is limited to getting high, having purposeless sex and plotting revenge on arrogant locker-room bullies who question their masculinity. These teens have perfected a patois of insult that aspires to the poetic but that ultimately reaffirms the vacuity within which they live. In “Killing Animals,” the narrator recounts in chronological fragments all the animals he and his friends killed with a slingshot and BB gun, ultimately killing their own spirit as well. In “April in Three Parts,” eighth-grader April begins a sexual affair with her 42-year-old soccer coach, one that trails off when she hits high school. “American History” recounts the trouble Jeremy gets into when his history teacher calls upon him to represent 1860s Mississippi and defend slavery in a debate—and Jeremy delights in blurring the line between historical rigor and personal belief.

A collection of beautifully written stories that are also uncompromisingly stark and somber.