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James Franco plays role of author with 'Palo Alto'

Actor James Franco attends the New York premiere

Actor James Franco attends the New York premiere of "127 Hours" at Chelsea Clearview Cinema in Manhattan. (Nov. 2, 2010) Credit: Getty Images

Let's get right to the point: Is it any good? There seems to be no limit to the compulsive ambition of actor James Franco ("Spider-Man," "127 Hours"), who - aside from having his first solo art exhibit this year, pursuing a PhD from Yale and various other academic and creative endeavors - has now published his first book, "Palo Alto," a collection of stories.

The seriousness of his intent is not in question. He has plenty of fame already, and there are far easier ways to boost your celebrity quotient than writing a book. Unfortunately, the results of his fiction writing efforts are uneven at best.

Many of the 11 stories read like exercises from an MFA creative writing class; in fact, Franco has an MFA from Brooklyn College. That said, Franco's writing isn't as bad as a cynical reader might expect. (He hardly sinks to the level of Jewel's poetry.) His prose is decent and occasionally impressive.

The 32-year-old author was born and raised in Palo Alto, Calif., and his hometown makes a compelling setting for an exploration of the lives of aimless suburban teenage misfits. Yet even as he examines themes of violence, sex, drugs and self-destruction, he never offers much insight into his characters' behavior. They're just a bunch of slackers.

Some stories prove compelling: In "Halloween," Franco effectively conveys a tense interaction between the young male narrator and a fellow student whom he learns has given acid to the narrator's girlfriend, which leaves him furious. "His eyes actually looked worried," he says. "It was not the reaction I was expecting. I suddenly felt powerful and a little bad for him at the same time." This story leads up to an incident in which the narrator accidentally runs over a woman while driving in a fit of rage. After a few years, though, the trauma is gone: "I'd drive past the corner, and it seemed like the accident only happened in a movie," he says.

Elsewhere, as in "Lockheed," Franco's attempt to capture an adolescent voice falls flat: "I got drunk only once, at a wedding. I puked behind a gazebo. I was with my cousin Jamie, who is gay. He goes to high school in Menlo Park, which is a five-minute drive. He is my only friend. He smokes menthol cigarettes."

Although "I Could Kill Someone" reads like a bad Bret Easton Ellis impression, a few of the stories are exceptional: "American History" chronicles a mock-classroom debate about slavery that turns into an ugly, violent confrontation between students. And "Tar Baby" conveys the frustration of a troubled boy whose inexplicable anger seeks a target the night of a classmate's party.

"Palo Alto" suffers from a lack of depth and a tonal sameness, but this gifted actor displays enough talent and potential that you shouldn't dismiss him as a wannabe writer just yet.

PALO ALTO, by James Franco. Scribner, 197 pp., $24.

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