It's against the rules to judge a book by its cover, but in the case of James Frey's debut novel, Bright Shiny Morning, it might be worth making an exception. The blurb on the inside cover struggles to exploit Frey's fame without explicitly referencing the uproar surrounding his debunked "memoir," A Million Little Pieces; the phrases "strikingly powerful" and "tour de force" are thrown around with wild abandon, and Frey is described as "one of the most celebrated and controversial authors in America." Obviously criticizing a novel or its author because of an overzealous copywriter is unfair, but the desperate push for literary greatness mirrors the central flaw of Morning's well-intentioned but top-heavy core: Its modest charms collapse under the weight of its pretensions.

An attempt to capture the city of Los Angeles in prose, Morning follows four storylines whose only connection is their primary location. A young couple flees to L.A. to escape abusive parents and small-town life, a publicly closeted movie star uses his power to stalk and seduce the current object of his obsession, the American daughter of illegal Mexican immigrants tries to overcome body issues to find happiness, and a homeless drunk does his best to protect a teenage meth addict from her demons and some guys with guns. Between these stories, Frey interjects bits of L.A.'s history and descriptions of its culture, including such diverse topics as gun control, city design, and the way Hollywood has a (gasp) dark side.

There's no particular rhyme or reason to the interjections, which means they have no cumulative effect; Morning reads like the bastard child of a short-story collection and an almanac. But the child does have its moments. The sections focusing on the movie star are Harold Robbins lite, but the other main plots range from competent to engrossing, particularly the story of Old Man Joe, the hobo with a predilection for Chablis. With a little polish, Joe's adventures would've made a fine vignette, but Frey expects it, and the tales that surround it, to have some kind of larger purpose that they simply can't manage. At best, Morning's digressions are mildly amusing. At worst, they're self-indulgent white noise. If Frey wants to get past the scandal currently haunting his career, he needs to learn how to construct a novel before he starts trying to re-invent it.