There are those who maintain that Americans don't understand irony. James Frey (inset) does, or he couldn't have given this book such an optimistic title. It is the second-grimmest book about America of recent years: the first was his widely-acclaimed so-called memoir, A Million Little Pieces, which proved to be largely invented and caused a furore. Eventually, people who bought it were offered their money back: some took up the offer.
This one is described as a novel, but hey, back comes the irony. Frey's dark fiction is interspersed with bald "facts" about the history of Los Angeles. Some of them are true: all are read in an uncharacteristic, deliberate monotone by Lorelei King. They come as a relief from the meat of the matter, which consists of many harrowing stories. Some are the merest fragments – doomed or murderous characters looming up only to drift into the murky and terrifying unknown. Others linger long enough to engage the listener, even to allow for a little hope that something marvellous might happen. But Frey is not like that. Very nearly everything he touches ends in tears, or blood, or worse.
Trevor White reads with a steady, mesmerising reliability, somehow managing to make bearable the savage, cruel, misanthropic brilliance of the writing. Just as Goya used broad, black brush-strokes to depict the horrors of war, so Frey paints Los Angeles as Gehenna, the final destination of an incorrigibly decadent and self-destructive race.