Palo Alto: Stories, James Franco’s first collection of short fiction, is comprised of eleven stories, all set in his native city of Palo Alto, California. Equipped with his own personal experiences during the late 80’s and early 90’s and his shiny new MFA in Creative Writing from the prestigious Columbia University, Franco sets out to portray the violent and tumultuous life of those who find themselves growing up in the unglamorous and often gritty part of California. In “American History,” the protagonist, Jerry, channels those outmoded thoughts of someone devoted to the Confederate States of America during a debate regarding the American Civil War in their History Class. He even goes to the extent of using derogatory terms in his arguments. Unfortunately, his motivation to pursue such a dangerous and awful task is not to get a good grasp of history, or to get a good grade in class, but he does it to impress a girl. The ramifications of his actions is finally realized when, inside the locker room, a small gang of African-Americans begin to beat him up and left him bloody and defeated. In “Chinatown,” the readers are presented with Pam’s short-stint as the whore of Palo Alto, as Roberto, her only friend, parades her around the city only to be fucked and used by his friends, his acquaintances, and even some of the chefs and busboys at the local café, just so Roberto could get a free meal. In “Killing Animals,” the author delves into the obsession of men when it comes to hunting and killing beasts by telling short anecdotes from the life of three boys: Ryan, Ami and Ronnny. In “April: In Three Parts,” we are given a glimpse of April’s solitude and need for human contact through the eyes of Barry, a young man obsessed with her, and through April. Finally, in “I Could Kill Someone,” we are told of Cecil’s hatred for the large and dumb Brent Bauchner and his plan to kill Brent.
Given that Franco is an actor whose work in film I admire( as an actor, as a producer and as a director), I had high expectations for his collection. Sadly, I was utterly disappointed. I find that the stories included in the collection didn’t have a single attempt to contribute something insightful to the human experience. A lot of the times, I found myself not caring for the characters. I had no sympathy for them and some of the motivation for their actions is left unexplained and hidden behind Franco’s simplistic, quasi-minimalist and fast-paced narration and rendering of details. Also, I found the violence of this collection, its attempt to be transgressive, as a mere gimmick, an effort to capture one’s attention through the grit and horridness of human interaction, not as a means to explore the dark facets of humanity and the desperation and hopelessness that exists from pursuing such horrific and criminal acts. That, for me, is a silly ploy that might work for some readers, but not for me. Franco does succeed in one thing though, and that is the rendering of Palo Alto. His stories, at some point, acts like a tribute to his hometown, and he does a more than adequate job at rendering it warmth, its danger, and the sheer moral degradation of its citizens that chose this small city as home.