Thursday, July 07, 2005

Re-Freyed: The author of 'A Million Little Pieces' keeps putting himself back together

James Frey's 'My Friend Leonard'

Despite his alcoholism, F. Scott Fitzgerald always forced himself to write sober -- which might account for his halting output toward the end of his short life. Yet one wonders what might have been had Fitzgerald sobered up.

Would he have recovered his confidence and, his famous bon mot about there being no second acts in American life notwithstanding, amazed the world with a flurry of new novels?

James Frey is an alcoholic. He's also a crack addict. He's also a bestselling writer who managed to write his first book, 2003's "A Million Little Pieces," by getting sober. A sort of "Girl, Interrupted" rewritten by Hunter S. Thompson, Frey's memoir chronicled his hellish rehab at the Hazelden clinic in Minnesota, where he read the Tao, endured oral surgery without anesthetic and befriended his fellow patients -- a federal judge from New Orleans, a woman with whom he fell in love and a mobster named Leonard who became a father figure. One had the impression that the book, a true tour de force, was written in the same way Frey kicked his habit: as a sheer act of will.

What made "A Million Little Pieces" different from the numerous addiction memoirs written in recent years (Augusten Burrough's "Dry," Caroline Knapp's "Drinking: A Love Story" and Koren Zailckas' "Smashed: The Story of a Drunken Girlhood" the best-known among them) was Frey's direct, declarative writing style -- "I did this, I did that. We did this, we did that" -- and his arbitrary punctuation, breathless repetition and frequent run-on sentences. He came off as someone writing himself out of a panic attack.

Here's his description of the tug of alcoholism: "I feel the urge. Drink. The instinct begins to assert itself. Destroy. My old friend the Fury starts to rise, it says kill what you feel, kill what you feel. The Fury rises it says kill kill kill . . . I know death, I have seen it and been close to it, but not this type of death. I know grief and sorrow and sadness, but I have never felt them so deeply, so deeply, so deeply . . . I can make this all go away, the Fury says kill kill kill, it is time to destroy. I am an alcoholic and a drug addict. I can't deal with my feelings. Make it go away." If a headfirst plunge into the mind of a drug addict is what you're looking for, it's difficult to imagine a better way to do so.

The quote above actually appears in "My Friend Leonard," though one can find similar passages, almost verbatim, in "A Million Little Pieces." So if you've read the first book, expect more of the same -- at least for the first quarter, as Frey struggles to forge a new life for himself.

"My Friend Leonard" picks up right where "A Million Little Pieces" left off -- Frey is serving a six-month prison sentence in Ohio, after being released from rehab. From there, he moves to Chicago, only to encounter more tragedy, which causes him to borrow $30,000 from mobster Leonard, who puts him to work as a bag man to help cover the debt.

In between trips transporting unmentionables around the Midwest, Frey battles his demons, works simple jobs, parties with Leonard in high style (fancy hotels and food, but no drugs or drink), falls in and out of love and spends most nights fighting his demons, crying. He then begins his second act: "I decided I want to write something. I have no idea what, I don't really care, I just want to try. I buy a computer. I sit down in front of it and stare at the screen. I open a word-processing document and with two fingers I type -- What are you staring at (jerk)? -- over and over and over again." What he ends up writing are screenplays, but what he really wants to write is that first book. After having his life threatened, Frey goes legit, moves to Hollywood and continues his friendship with Leonard (more fancy food, Vegas, still no drugs or drink).

Unexpectedly, the book's plot arc doesn't hinge on his avoidance of drugs and booze, but on love: Leonard loves Frey, whom he calls his son, or rather his "SON." As outlined here in Frey's flat, tough-guy prose, their relationship is close and enviable, with Leonard playing the charming and generous mentor (he encourages Frey to buy a Picasso drawing with his ill-gotten gains) and Frey the capable, but vulnerable, twentysomething. The focus on friendship rather than drugs and physical pain makes this an easier book to digest than the first. But the coda at the end of "A Million Little Pieces," which reveals a key fact of Frey's and Leonard's relationship, will deaden the emotional impact of this book's ending -- at least for those who have read the first.

Like Leonard, Frey loves Frey -- or at least the sound of his own voice, the manic energy of being alive. It's easy to mistake the constant repetition of "I, I, I, I" for mere egotism, but while this sort of stream-of-consciousness would get an "F" from any schoolteacher, it has served writers from Ernest Hemingway (in "A Farewell to Arms") to William Kotzwinkle ("Fan Man") to William Gaddis ("Carpenter's Gothic") extremely well. If you surrender to it, you might find that Frey's small opus represents a 21st century version of Whitman's "barbaric yawp" -- a reminder that he has survived and lives to sing the song of himself.

This originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman

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