Palo Alto (short story collection)

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Palo Alto
Palo Alto book cover.png
AuthorJames Franco
CountryUnited States
GenreShort story
Publication date
October 19, 2010
Media typePrint (hardcover, paperback)

Palo Alto is a collection of linked short stories by American actor and writer James Franco. The collection was published on October 19, 2010, by Scribner's. The stories are about teenagers and their experiments with vices and their struggles with their families. The book is named after his hometown of Palo Alto, California, and is dedicated to many of the writers he worked with at Brooklyn College. Inspired by some of Franco's own teenage memories,[1][2] and memories written and submitted by high school students at Palo Alto Senior High School,[3] the stories describe life in Palo Alto as experienced by a series of teenagers who spend most of their time indulging in driving drunk, using drugs and taking part in unplanned acts of violence. Each passage is told by a young narrator.[4]

The film adaptation of the book stars its author, James Franco, Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, Claudia Levy, Chris Messina, Keegan Allen, Talia Shire, Don Novello and Val Kilmer. The film is written and directed by Gia Coppola.[5] The 2015 film Yosemite, written and directed by Gabrielle Demeestere and starring James Franco, was based on two stories from this book as well. The 2015 film Memoria, written and directed by Vladimir de Fontenay and Nina Ljeti and again starring Franco, was based in part on this book and in part on Franco's 2013 book, A California Childhood. The 2014 film Killing Animals, directed by Javier Bosques, Steven Huffaker, Shirley Kim-Ryu, Sarah Kruchowski, Eben Portnoy, and Andrew Wesman, was based on six of the stories from this book.[6]


The book is divided into two parts, Palo Alto I and Palo Alto II.

The first part of the book, Palo Alto I, includes the following stories:

  • Halloween
  • Lockheed
  • American History
  • Killing Animals
  • Emily
  • Camp
  • Chinatown (this story has three chapters: Part I, Vietnam; Part II, Headless and Part III, Caffe Buon)

The second part of the book, Palo Alto II, includes the following stories:

  • April (which has three chapters: Part I, The Rainbow Goblins; Part II, Wasting and Part III, April)
  • Tar Baby
  • I Could Kill Someone
  • Jack-O'
  • Yosemite



Ryan, the protagonist of this story and 16 years old, is on probation for being a minor under the influence of alcohol. Nevertheless, he meets his friend Ed to drink liquor and to smoke weed. They decide to go to the Halloween party of Alice Wolfe, the prettiest girl in class. Although Ryan is only allowed to drive to school and back, he and Ed take the car to escape from Ed's home when his mom returns. At the party Ryan talks to a girl and gets distracted from calling his girlfriend that night. She gets angry with him and says that she and her friends got ready for another Halloween party. Ryan gets jealous because his rival Nick will be at this party too. He decides to get to the party angrily and, while doing so, accidentally hits a person. Ryan stops and looks behind but realizes there is no one else around so he decides to drive away. He parks his car at Ed's and knocks on the front door. Ed's father opens and asks Ryan to come in. They both smoke a pipe and watch news about the death of actor River Phoenix. Ryan leaves the house. Years later, Ryan passes the corner where the accident happened. He initially believes it was a scene from a movie but then remembers what happened that night.


Marissa hates math unlike her father who has taught her how to become good at the subject. Her only friend is her gay cousin Jamie. Marissa gets an internship at Lockheed Martin, which makes her dad very proud of her. Between her freshman and sophomore years she works for a Swedish man named Jan where she watches films reels of the moon; she pays little attention and spends her time doodling. One day Jan finds her pictures and puts them down in a neat stack and shows pictures he had drawn. One of which is of his wife, Greta. On the 4th of July Jamie invites her to a party at Katie Hescher's house. Marissa does not know anyone at the party and thinks about what Jan is doing with Greta at the moment. Later she talks to Ronny Feldman, a boy who was kicked out of her school. After talking to him, she becomes interested in him because of his attention towards her. A Latino boy offends Ronny and a fight escalates outside. Ronny chases some friends of the boy off the street and some minutes later a SUV arrives and Ronny's body gets hit by the car. The SUV drives over him, killing him. Later the police arrive and ask for statements; the Latino boy gets arrested. Some time later while Marissa is at her internship, she watches the film reels of the moon and draws Ronny and her kissing.

American History[edit]

Jeremy is in 10th grade. In the American History class they have a debate about slavery. Jeremy has to represent Mississippi and should be pro-slavery. Although he is not an outgoing person, he starts the debate. Stephen, the weird guy of the class, is really into the discussion. He seems to be angry and represents the part against slavery. Stephen gets more and more aggressive and calls the others racists. Jeremy wants to provoke Stephen. The teacher stops the debate to end the lesson. Jeremy is proud that Stephen was pretty mad and talks to Stacey, the prettiest girl in class, and asks her if she wants to go out with him. Stacey does not want to talk to him and Jeremy is disappointed. The next day, Jeremy is the only one in the locker room after P.E. Lewis, the only black guy of class, comes in with some other black students. Lewis is angry because Jeremy used the word "nigger" in class the day before. They slap Jeremy, Lewis kicks him. Jeremy is bleeding. At the next lesson, American History, the teacher Mr. Hurston wants Jeremy to see the nurse because he is still bleeding. When Jeremy leaves the classroom he says to Stacey that he did it for her, but she is confused and does not know what he is talking about. When he stands in front of the nurse's office, Jeremy sees a burning center of light.

Killing Animals[edit]

The protagonist of this story is in 7th grade. Together with his friends Ami, Ronny and Saul he watches "Colors" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and do arm wrestling. The next morning they try to hunt animals with slingshots. They damage the High School building and walk through the city although it is 2 a.m. A week later they go out with their slingshots again during the day. They want to shoot bird but do not hit. Finally, Saul hits a dove. One year later they all meet again at Amy's bar mitzvah. They are not friends anymore but still nice to each other. In 8th grade, the storyteller goes to another school. His new friends are Ed and Ivan, they smoke and drink alcohol. Sometimes they also hang out with Howard, an anorexic boy. They use a waterbaloon launcher to shoot oranges at people. On a weekend they steal a scooter and throw eggs at people. They throw a hard boiled egg at a man, who haunts them and kicks Ivan. In High School his friend Howard has a paint bullet gun. Together with Bill they try it out and shoot at houses. They get caught and have to do community service. The storyteller explains that famous authors like Faulkner and Hemingway shot animals and killed them but he and his friends just shot small animals and killed no person.


Emily is the storyteller of this story. She tells about Ryan, a boy who is younger than her and she finds him cute. She meets him at a party and feels love for him. She plays quarters with him and his friend John Olds, which causes her friend "Pork" to make fun of her. They go upstairs and she gives him a blowjob. Later she sees Ryan with her friend Adam laughing. At a later time, at a Homecoming Dance, she asks John Olds where Ryan is, but Ryan is out of town. She goes on a walk with Adam. He jumps naked in a pool and wants her to come in but she does not want to. So he throws her in the pool and disappears. When she comes back to the dance she pours her schnapps over Adam's head and slaps him. He slaps her too and both have to leave the party. Adam tries to call her but she does not answer the phone, so he constantly waits at the front door of her house. She ignores him.


The storyteller goes with his friends Ivan, Ute and Ed to a YMCA water-ski camp. A married couple manages the camp. The storyteller tells the reader something about his school and his cat. Also he depicts stories about his friends and his experiences with girls. Most of the time he tells about Nazis and Jews and Howard who had sex with a black girl.

Chinatown (in three parts)[edit]

Part I, Vietnam[edit]

Roberto is 16 years old. He plays football with some Mexicans. After the match he walks over to two girls. He talks to Vicky and Pam until Vicky leaves. He thinks that Pam is ugly but he decides to go with her to his friend Tom's house. At Tom's they smoke pot. Pam tells him that she is half-Vietnamese and adopted. They play a game in Tom's darkened room and Roberto wants to see her vagina and fucks her in the dark. She leaves and Roberto finds a blood spot on the comforter.

Part II, Headless[edit]

Roberto phones often with Pam. She invites him to her place, where she gives him a blowjob. He takes her out with his friends Tom and Seth and Pam gives all of the boys a blowjob. Pam gives several boys a blowjob at a party. At Jason's place they drink alcohol and smoke pot and all the boys sleep with Pam and Roberto penetrates her with a cucumber and a carrot. After Pam left the party they burn the sheets.

Part III, Caffe Buon[edit]

At the apartment building of Roberto's dad is an Italian cafe. The cafe's owner tells Roberto if he gets him laid he will get free dinner. Roberto calls Pam and she sleeps with the owner. Roberto does the same for the cook of the cafe. At school Roberto is the only person Pam knows. Together with Seth and Ramone, Roberto picks up Pam and they have sex with her in the car. Later Seth is sent to a private school and Pam starts to behave differently and finds friends at the school. A few months later Roberto and Seth get arrested for rape but the police can do nothing because nobody forced Pam to do anything. Since then Roberto and Pam do not have any contact.

April (in three parts)[edit]

Part I, The Rainbow Goblins[edit]

The protagonist of the story Teddy drives with his friend Fred home from art class. Fred asks him what he would do if he had an accident and is drunk. Teddy says he is on probation and therefore he would drive away. There is a party at Barry's house where Teddy, Barry, Fred, Ivan and AJ are drinking whiskey. Teddy is looking for April, he likes her and wants to talk to her but then he sees her kissing with Barry. Together with Fred he leaves the party, Teddy is driving very fast and ends up having a head to head collision like Fred had predicted earlier, Teddy then starts to yell at Fred asking him how did he know he was going to get into an accident. Fred wants to get out of the car because he is afraid of Teddy's driving. Teddy stops the car and Fred gets out. When Teddy arrives at home there is a police officer because someone got Teddy's plates. Teddy gets arrested and gets sentenced to 60 hours of community service. He has to do his community service in the Children's Library which is run by Judy and Mags, two nice old ladies. During his community service Teddy reads his favourite children's book The Rainbow Goblins and he likes working there.

Part II, Wasting[edit]

Teddy starts to damage the books in the library. His probation officer wants to see him and tells Teddy that he will no longer work there. Together with Bill and Barry he smokes some weed. His new community service job is at a nursing home. There he meets another boy named Brian, who has also to do community service. Teddy draws the old people at the nursing home. At a party at Barry's he smokes weed again and Barry tells that he had sexual intercourse with April but also thinks that she is crazy which makes Teddy angry. A woman at the nursing house is very happy that Teddy drew her so well.

Part III, April[edit]

In this part of the story, April is the storyteller. She tells how she and her family came to Palo Alto. From time to time she looks after Michael, the son of the football coach Mr. B. One day, when Mr. B. comes back from a party he kisses her and then he brings her to a party where she meets Teddy and Ivan. At Halloween she goes out with Mr. B. and Michael. Back at home Mr. B. tells her that he loves her. One day after a match she goes home with Mr. B. and has her first time with him, she is 14 years old at that time and dates him for two more years. At a party she meets Teddy and talks to him, she tells him that she is trying to get a distance between her and Mr. B., but she babysits Michael again. Michael tells her that there is another babysitter. She leaves the house, goes to 7-Eleven. She then wants to go back to Mr. B.'s house.

Tar Baby[edit]

Teddy, the storyteller, drinks vodka with his friend AJ. AJ calls April; he wants to meet her, so he and Teddy leave the house. Teddy thinks of the Tar Baby of Uncle Remus and April does not show up. The boys decide to go to a party at their schoolmate Ofra's house. AJ drives the car but Teddy provokes him and AJ throws him out of the car and drives away. Teddy decides to walk to Ofra's and on his way he talks to two men. When he arrives at Ofra's house he does not get in but starts yelling until the police take him away.

I Could Kill Someone[edit]

Teddy, the storyteller wants to kill Brent Baucher because he hates him and he hates himself. One day his school mates play a trick on the storyteller and twist his balls until he passes out. Brent was the one who twisted his balls and also calls him a faggot all the time. After the incident in the locker room the storyteller decides to kill Brent. His friend Barry knows someone who can get him a gun. Some days later the storyteller gets into a fight with Brent and says to him that he will die. When the storyteller gets the gun he realizes that killing Brent would not change anything. Although he goes to a school concert with the gun and there he bumps into Brent.


Michael, the storyteller, sits together with his friend Joe in his grandfather's old car. They are in front of the Unified Palo Alto School District Building. They both think about what they would be in the time of King Arthur. Joe wants to be king. Suddenly Michael starts to drive and hits the wall of the building. Joe is bleeding and shocked. Since then Joe is called Jack-O' because he did not get a replacement tooth for the one he lost in the accident. Some months later they drive down the Freeway 280 and Michael asks Joe what he would do if he was an old Egyptian. Joe wants to be Pharaoh. They drive to Hector to get some drugs and get high. Michael asks Hector if he wants to be pope or Pablo Escobar. Hector wants to be Escobar. Then Michael asks him if he rather wants to be gay or a girl. They discuss the question and after that Michael and Joe drive home. They are still high and Michael decides to get on the other side of the highway.


Chris, the storyteller, goes with his dad and his younger brother Alex to Yosemite. He finds a bible in the car and his father explains that he marks parts in it he likes. Chris' dad wants to spend some nice days with his sons but the boys do not really like the trip. The next day they hike to Yosemite Falls. They come to a small fire and Chris finds a skeleton there. His father thinks that it is a mountain climber who had an accident. Back at the hotel, the father calls the Park Rangers but they think that the skeleton is a bear who was shot. They have dinner and talk and then go to bed. Chris thinks about the bear.

Critical response[edit]

The book received mixed reviews; Los Angeles Times called it "the work of an ambitious young man who clearly loves to read, who has a good eye for detail, but who has spent way too much time on style and virtually none on substance."[1] The Guardian said that Franco's "foray into the literary world may be met with cynicism in some quarters, but this is a promising debut from a most unlikely source."[7] Writing in The New York Times, reviewer and fellow author Joshua Mohr praised Franco for how, in the story "American History", he juxtaposed historical parts with a present-day social commentary that "makes you wonder how much we've actually evolved in post-bellum America."[8]

Publishers Weekly reviewed the collection, stating, "The author fails to find anything remotely insightful to say in these 11 amazingly underwhelming stories."[9]


  1. ^ a b "A life in constant motion". January 5, 2011.
  2. ^ Potts, Kim (November 2, 2010). "'127' Facts About James Franco". Moviefone. Retrieved March 30, 2011.
  3. ^ Ram, Megha. "James Franco requests Paly students' short stories". PalyVoice.
  4. ^ Pidd, Helen (February 20, 2011). "The many lives of James Franco". The Guardian. London. Retrieved March 6, 2011.
  5. ^ Exclusive: 'Palo Alto' Trailer Vulture Exclusive: 'Palo Alto' Trailer -
  6. ^
  7. ^ Killian Fox (February 1, 2011). "Palo Alto by James Franco – review". The Guardian. UK.
  8. ^ Mohr, Joshua (October 22, 2010). "Teen Spirit, Soured". The New York Times. Retrieved March 31, 2011.
  9. ^ "Fiction Book Review: Palo Alto by James Franco". Publishers Weekly. August 26, 2010. Retrieved January 28, 2018.