By Michael Frank
A long-time book critic for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Frank begins his story not with his earliest memories but with a conversation overheard between his mother and his paternal aunt, the inimitable Auntie Hankie. A landmark in his early life, his eavesdropping confirms what he already knows: that his childless aunt adores him and wants him for her own.
Powerful autobiographies are often said to read like novels, and The Mighty Franks delivers on the promise more than most. An account of the author’s childhood in 1960-70s Laurel Canyon, steps away from pop stars and Hollywood types, Michael’s life story includes regular visits to antique shops, museums, and movie sets. Auntie Hankie and her husband, Uncle Irving, are screenwriters with a formidable list of credits, including many landmark post-war movies. More than his parents, Hankie and Irving shape young Michael’s perspective, showering him with expensive gifts (not wasted on his brothers) to cement his good taste. With a hint of the inevitable about it, the story ends with the decline of the Mighty Franks, leaving us to wonder if Auntie Hank is a hero or a villain.
Not a pleasant book in the conventional sense, The Mighty Franks is an interesting read. I expected Hollywood plot twists throughout, as if the story were unfolding moment by moment until it could take me by surprise with a screenwriter’s acumen. “Does Michael turn out to be Auntie Hank’s secret love child?” I wondered for a while. “Is Auntie Hank going to go broke by the end, alone in a retirement home for the stars?” Years of the author’s angst led to his wanderings as a troubled young man mimicking one of Auntie Hank’s soul-searching movie scripts. “How much of this is real?” I asked myself. “Is Michael a reliable narrator?”
Many memoirs provoke few questions from readers, ask little of their attention beyond the following of a basic life story. The Mighty Franks invites instead an emotional response to events misunderstood by the author until long after they had taken place. The child’s grasping, seen through the lens of his later self, is rare and honest. Frank uses all the tools in the writer’s toolbox (though he could have left some of the lofty vocab in a drawer) to create something his readers will remember.