pulp (2006-04)

Frey with That?

Never mind the additives in James Frey’s super value book deal

by Ellen Mallernee

Looking back it seems all too obvious; James Frey’s memoirs were absurdly engrossing; his life upset like some Guinness record-obliterating domino queue. Last week’s media ballyhoo over the authenticity of his successive addiction memoirs uprighted some of those felled pieces.

With both the Oprah-sanctioned A Million Little Pieces (Anchor Books) and its companion, My Friend Leonard (Riverhead Books), crowning the New York Times paperback nonfiction and hardcover nonfiction lists, The Smoking Gun website lit a bomb and chucked it into public consciousness by accusing Frey of embellishing major details in both books. Though close readers and critics long had their doubts about the veracity of Frey’s outrageous tale, The Smoking Gun substantiated them. 

In spite of Frey’s fibbing fiasco—culminating with his boot-shaking appearance on Larry King Live —his books are still firmly planted atop the bestseller lists. That’s because they’re tremendously readable and fascinating, because his lies have only made them all the more so and because they’re kind of—shhh—inspirational think pieces, though they’re too cool to admit it. Because of that, I, and many others, have separated Frey The Lying S.O.B. from the delicate brutal creature that is James of the book. Thus Frey’s Larry King claim ultimately rings true: The books’ emotional truth still holds.

By the age of 23, Frey says his youthful bacchanalia had gone bad. He was an alcoholic, a drug addict and a criminal, one whiskey shot away from death at the time of his admission to the Hazelden rehab clinic, where the opening scenes of A Million Little Pieces take place. He’s got a four-inch cavity torn in his cheek, a strip of tender gum where several of his front teeth once were, and a toxic attitude. Interspersed with his recovery struggles, the book offers take-it-or-leave-it accounts of his erstwhile exploits—the heinous drugs he abused, the women he mistreated, the couches he took a leak on, the fights he provoked and the jails he got slammed into. His blunt confessional seems, at first, to be Frey’s way of working through the fourth step of Alcoholics Anonymous—“Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”—but Frey thinks the Twelve Steps are a bunch of hooey, and says so often. It’s his belief that the only way to survive his bloody, withdrawal-induced wretches, his root canal sans Novocain and the bird’s eye view of his past wrongs is to hold on, and tight.

In rehab, Frey meets Lilly, whose watery blue eyes and long black hair and soft white skin are surprising in juxtaposition to her prior life as a prostitute and a crack addict. Lilly and James fall instantly and deeply in love. Though their drug counselors forbid their relationship, they meet in the woods outside the clinic, and use one another like rungs on a ladder to further their recovery. Congested with drugs and alcohol, neither of them, Frey explains, previously tolerated the presence of love in their lives.

At the clinic, Frey also meets his match in Leonard, a wealthy mobster with a chip on his shoulder. They become thick friends, and by the book’s close Leonard asks that James act as his surrogate son. James agrees, but is preoccupied—when he leaves the clinic he’ll go straight to jail. He won’t see Lilly again for a long while.

My Friend Leonard picks up where A Million Little Pieces left off, opening with a 20-page account of James’ stay in jail and the particular inadequacy of phone conversations with Lilly, who lives in a Chicago halfway house. (Among other things, The Smoking Gun revealed that Frey never went to jail. Still, Leonard ’s blow was softened, a little, by a vague disclaimer at its start: “Some names and identifying characteristics have been changed. Some sequences and details of events have been changed.”)

Frey writes from the gut, with little punctuation, no compunction and no showy bull crap; it’s as though he’s participating in a bizarre writing exercise involving a whistle and a small amount of time. The result isn’t messy; it’s driving, full of repetition, and, boy, is it sad.

Outside of jail, in Chicago where he’s gone to reunite with Lilly, James discovers something catastrophic, a blow more excruciating than anything that’s come before. But Frey doesn’t shy away from reliving this grief; once he’s opened that hatch, he’s determined to unload every bit of it.

Always it’s Leonard who pulls James above his grief, assuages his loneliness. He hires James into his mobster ring as a sinecure and showers him with extraneous gifts and emotional support; he helps James through besotted relationships with women, a burgeoning career as a screenwriter and a move to L.A. My Friend Leonard , more measured in its pace and more exhaustive in its span of time, is also more fabricated than A Million Little Pieces , but it’s also the stronger of the two. Like a carnival Ring of Fire, it’s a full circle, a wonderful and horrible ride that demands only one thing of you: Hold on.