My Friend Leonard, by James Frey. Riverhead Books, 357 pages, $24.95.
James Frey wants you to know he’s a real man. A manly man. Perhaps even a manimal. Two years ago, when A Million Little Pieces, the first installation of his unrelenting odyssey into sobriety, was thrust upon the world, James was already proving what a man he was. He kicked his 10-year drug and alcohol addiction just like that, because that’s what people like James Frey do. He hopscotched through the 12-step program, because he didn’t really need it. He fell in love with one of those pale-skinned misunderstood crack whores, because real men aren’t afraid to be held. He became best friends with big-time Mafia types, because James. Frey. Will. Not. Be. Intimidated! He self-administered pedicures, endured root canal au naturel and performed a little auto-surgery with a pen knife, because pain is awesome. Watch me, he roared, boxing his chest with those big doughy hands, I am not a wimp like all you wimps. I don’t even need to punctuate! And then he crouched down, bow-armed and bow-legged, to share a bowl of raw meat with his pit bull.
We all know James Frey’s story, whether we read his first memoir or not. Critics and mortals alike took it upon themselves to bloviate: “Gripping,” they wrote, “inspiring,” even “lacerating.” Of course, Jimbo bloviated better than anyone else. He announced that he wanted to be (perhaps already was?) the best writer of his generation. He ate with his hands, tattooed feisty acronyms on his body parts and-oddly-listened to N.W.A. His best friends were his dogs. His fey contemporaries-three-named wonder boys like Jonathan Safran Foer and David Foster Wallace-could go back to their M.F.A. programs and stay there. For those of us who actually endured the million little pages of his monotome, Mr. Frey’s editor Sean McDonald (with whom he has now decamped to Riverhead from Nan Talese) hammered home all that gripping, ripping business by refusing to edit any part of the unchaptered, artistically punctuated ramble. Over and over again, the dull banalities of rehab life: from early-morning vomit to late-night, bedside-table epiphanies. “Lacerating,” indeed.
Apparently, there was another part of James Frey’s life yet to be explored, so he did what any self-respecting memoirist would do: He picked up his pen and scribbled a 350-page second installment-life post-rehab. (Watch for a third installment, perhaps entitled The Girl Next-Door.) From Mylanta blue, the cover turned Pepto Bismol pink, inscribed with the words My Friend Leonard in the large, looping cursive normally reserved for high-school binders. And here it is: James Frey, 35 going on 16, delivering more revelations about himself … and some odd tidbits about a guy named Leonard.
Unfortunately, Mr. Frey made a big mistake when he gave away the major plot points of his second memoir in a featherbrained epilogue to the first. In a few somber paragraphs, he described the fate of the rehab comrades he’d feverishly wanted his readers to embrace: Lily, the crack-whore love-of-his-life, committed suicide; Leonard, his best friend, died of AIDS.
So, in the new book, we turn the first 27 pages waiting breathlessly for an event we know is coming; and then we turn the remaining 320-truly breathless by now-waiting for another event, also foretold. In between, apart from the many meals he ingests and enjoys itemizing in shopping-list detail, not much happens.
James goes to jail and reads Tolstoy to another inmate (sensitive). He moves to Chicago by truck, even though his license has been permanently suspended (bold). Hangs out with terminally dull friends (accommodating). Courts terminally dull women and then doesn’t sleep with them (respectful). Gets crap minimum-wage jobs (humble). Still hasn’t learned how to punctuate (subversive). Resists all drugs and alcohol (superhuman). And starts working for Leonard!
Mr. Frey becomes a runner for the mob. (At last we figure out why he has Matisses and Picassos and Dalís lining the walls of the sprawling Tribeca loft he’s just sold.) And then, because carrying money-filled suitcases generally inspires that sort of thing, he decides he wants to be a writer. He writes a screenplay. It sucks. He writes another screenplay. That one sucks, too. He sits in front of his computer, listens to love ballads and swears! He moves to L.A., writes and sells Kissing a Fool, buys a dog. The dog is his only friend. He makes a short movie. He spends some time trying to do a Nathanael West, but fails: “There it is, that mean and wondrous wench. The best place and the worst place in America, a place where dreams come true, where people are destroyed, a place that doesn’t care about the past and is a vision of the future.” He sits in front of his computer and continues to swear.
That’s all there is: James Frey’s mid-20’s as a struggling screenwriter, eating a lot of food and hanging out with his mobster friend. Is the story worth telling? His mind-numbingly simple insights haven’t evolved. Emotionally, he hasn’t even completed the adolescent stage. Without the drugs and the self-mutilation, he’s a boring specimen.
But author and subject are by now wholly conflated. James Frey will get a few new tattoos, climb on a taller table, bang his fists a little harder and perhaps tear into a few copies of McSweeney’s with his teeth. For a few minutes he’ll give us something to talk about, which is all that finally matters.
Jessica Joffe is a reporter at The Observer.