James Franco’s new book, “ Actors Anonymous ,” is being billed as a novel , but it’s actually a collection of sketches and short stories with bits of anomalous matter lodged here and there like the mystery ingredients in a neighbor’s sympathy casserole. There are touching stories, usually about losers or recovering addicts or aspiring actors (featuring lots of bragging about straight sex but lots of graphic descriptions of gay sex). There are also letters and memos and e-mails written by Franco — no metaphorical stand-ins, just the guy himself — at various points in his busy life.
The chapters follow the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. But while the tenets of AA aim relentlessly at one central goal — to return to sober living — “Actors Anonymous” has no such core. Instead, it’s held together by the fact that it was written by a famous young actor. The book’s appeal is almost acrostic: Fans will parse these stories to detect when Franco is talking about himself and when he isn’t.
It’s maddening because the sections of outright fiction here are quite good, decidedly better than anything in Franco’s first short-story collection “Palo Alto” (2010). In the disturbing “Faith & Victory,” a volunteer at a hospital for the mentally handicapped finds that the experience blurs the line between sanity and dementia. Hapless loser Jerry in “Peace” yells at his terrified ex-girlfriend, “Don’t you know who I’m going to be?” — the quintessential insecure actor’s cri de coeur.
In the strongest sections, “McDonald’s I” and “McDonald’s II,” a young father and recovering drug addict works fast food to earn a paycheck and stay clean but also performs quick bathroom sex for extra cash. These parts of the book last just long enough to hook us before they’re abruptly replaced by two pages of Franco regretting, for instance, that he ever agreed to be in the movie “Tristan and Isolde” (“I should have known. I should have known”). You want to tell the author to butt out of his own book.
The Post’s review condemned “Palo Alto” as “undergraduate-level mulch,” but other critics reacted to that debut collection with a kind of bemused tolerance (one called Franco “a serious writer with an untested talent”). Tolerance has its limits, though. As Franco himself writes, “I’ve been on sets where I look around and see all these adults focused on putting something together, all these professionals, good at what they do, and what they’re making is the most puerile crap ever.”
Franco’s readers know the feeling. Time to put up or shut up.
Donoghue is managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.
By James Franco
New Harvest. 286 pp. $26