New in Paperback: Palo Alto

Palo AltoJames FrancoScribner, 2010The first thing - the very first, instant thing - you think when you see the paperback cover of James Franco's debut short story collection Palo Alto is: well, you know what it is.It only takes a second for you to correct yourself. The handsome, shirtless young boy's mouth is hanging open because he's dozing. His hands are neatly folded in his lap. He's not doing what - for just one instant - you thought he was doing.You were meant to think that. The semi-opaque San Francisco mist behind Franco's name on the cover is there to create that one second of teetering doubt. You were meant to feel that one second of awkwardly intimate, borderline revolting surprise-titillation.That makes it the perfect cover for this collection (infinitely preferable to the bland-neon design of the hardcover, which strained for a 40s-style respectability a group of stories about feckless stoner kids was never meant to have), since readers come to this book with the exact same combination of prurience and cringing. James Franco is a good-looking Hollywood movie star; normal people expect such creatures to be vapid and self-absorbed. Any books produced by Hollywood movie stars are expected to be vanity exercises cobbled together in the wee small hours by the inevitable gay assistant and then given a hasty, drunken thumbs-up in passing by the 'author.'And yet, Palo Alto got some serious reviews when it came out in hardcover - not just the gratuities you'd expect from glossy entertainment magazines but genuine, considered analyses. Some critics found things to praise in all earnestness; other (perhaps older, stodgier?) critics harrumphed and moved on, but the point is, the book wasn't simply dismissed. Readers - including professional readers - found enough traction in it to make it worthy of some kind of comment.Re-reading the bleak, surreal stories in Palo Alto, it's not hard to see why. As derivative and self-indulgent as many of these little riffs are, there's a wry sensitivity running through most of them, a starkly minimalist approach to word-choice, an ear for the different ways people sound (not so surprising a skill to find in an actor's repertoire), as in the quick sobriety test in "The Rainbow Goblins":

"Say the alphabet backward," said the tough lady cop."You say it," I said."If you're trying to get wise ...," she said, but she got interrupted."Looks like we got a wise one here," said the RFK cop."I'm not wise, Chip," I said. "I just can't say the ABCs backward, I can't even do it normally.""Listen, smart-ass," said the tough lady cop, "you can do this sobriety test, or we can go down to the hospital and they can do a blood test on you. Your choice.""I'm drunk," I said. "Take me downtown or whatever, I give in."

Or the bitter-yet-hoping internal monologue of a loser character from "Yosemite":

Sitting in the sun I felt empty. I was a black center in the middle of all the nature. I was nothing but I could do anything. I could fill myself with anything. I said a prayer. I asked God that I would never be like my father. I told God that I didn't want to have sons. I said that if I died I would like to have done something good before that happened. I prayed that my brother would die, and then I took it back.

Despite the fact that Franco is continuing to devote chunks of his time and money to attending (and perhaps even ... teaching) more classes in creative writing, many critics last year wondered at various lengths if he was serious about what he's doing in Palo Alto. The question was pointed - reviewers didn't want to be tricked by the prose equivalent of that switcheroo the paperback's cover pulls off. Either Franco is sincere in his commitment to literature, or he's ... you know ... in the back seat of a car and daring us to look away.Or he's innocently dozing, in which case we'll all feel foolish in ten years.