Disgraced memoirist seeks Bright Shiny future

A young couple who lift $20,000 from a biker gang. A predatory male superstar fixated on a football hero. An adorable Chicana with thighs the size of tree trunks. A homeless man who wants to save a drug-addled teenage girl.

These are the major characters and plot lines of James Frey's Bright Shiny Morning. Frey is (if anyone needs reminding) the disgraced author of A Million Little Pieces, the Oprah Winfrey-endorsed memoir that, when it turned out to be partly made up, stirred more indignation in the media than the war in Iraq.

Bright Shiny Morning is a meaty social novel in the Tom Wolfe/Richard Price mold, though Frey's manic run-on sentences can't rival theirs in terms of craft. Its subject is Los Angeles from the bottom to the top, and unless you have ice in your veins you'll find its 501 pages of tiny print compulsively readable. I did.

By page 100 I was telling myself, "I love this book!" By page 300 I was restless. By the end I almost hated it. Why? Frey doesn't deliver on the expectations he raises. He doesn't even seem to know he's raised them.

As you weave among the major stories and the hordes of minor ones, you all but quiver with anticipation: how's he going to tie this all together? Little by little you realise: he's not.

Nobody in one plot so much as brushes against someone in another plot. The themes in the freestanding essays bear little relation to the narrative.

Only a novelist at the edge of literary sanity would introduce on page 438, when his parallel plots are barrelling towards climax, an 11-page essay on the LA art scene (which has zilch to do with the rest of the book). Or follow it with a six-page list of soldiers treated at local hospitals, with their maladies (less than zilch).

In general, the essays (on youth gangs, city districts, celebrity train wrecks and so forth) are less insightful than the tales; Frey seems to have a natural grasp of character. But despite being a gifted storyteller, he has only two modes, saccharine and brutal. He also has two modes as essayist, amazed (ah, the depravity/diversity/splendour of LA!) and cynical.

Despite its moronic politics, in which poor equals virtuous and rich equals bad, Bright Shiny Morning looks less like a failure of writing than one of editing. Frey is a prototypical raw talent – a writer who can churn out readable prose by the ream but has no idea how to shape it or imbue it with taste. So he needs a strong editor.