Move Over, Royal Tenenbaums: Meet the Mighty Franks

“The Mighty Franks” (the title comes from Aunt Harriet’s unironic appellation for her family) is set in the scrubby Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles, traditional outpost of musicians and artists, rather than in the security-patrolled enclaves of Brentwood or Bel-Air. No hilltop palaces here, no Peoplecovered weddings or medevac flights to Betty Ford. Still, this is a narrative that could unfold only in a place where fantasy and reality blur with treacherous ease.

At its center is Aunt “Hankie,” a theatrical and mercurial woman who might be described as the love child of Auntie Mame and Mommie Dearest. The author may have been raised (in the 1960s and ’70s) by Marty Frank, the owner of a medical-equipment business, and his wife, Merona, a homemaker, but his surrogate parents were Hankie, who was Marty’s sister, and Irving, who was Merona’s brother. (In this eccentrically intertwined clan, not only did brother and sister marry sister and brother, but their mothers — Michael’s grandmothers — also lived together.) A tall, formidable presence with a tower of auburn hair, a fake beauty mark and a slash of Salmon Ice lipstick, Aunt Hankie reels in Michael at a young age and — unhappily for the boy but goldenly for the memoirist — never lets him go.

After school or on Saturday mornings, she pilots her Buick Riviera into his parents’ driveway, sounds the horn and, in a cloud of men’s cologne from I. Magnin, whisks her nephew off on “larky” adventures. She takes him to his grandmothers’ apartment in Hollywood, or on antiquing expeditions, or to her own home nearby, a French-style manse obsessively decorated with her cannily scavenged treasures (“period, not mo-derne”). She devotes herself to indoctrinating Michael about art (Matisse is superior to Picasso), film (Truffaut over Welles), literature (Faulkner, not Hemingway). At 9 or 10 he is unable to do much more than inhale her glamour and parrot her outré…

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