"My Friend Leonard" James Frey
Riverhead Hardcover 2005 $24.95
James Frey is a liar. A bad one. And hugely successful.
You can discover just how bad a liar he is by reading his second novel, My Friend Leonard. And you can hear all about Frey's latest successes on his website, which he has christened, with typical modesty, Big Jim Industries
Longtime eXile fans may remember that I wrote a less-than-flattering review of Frey's first novel, A Million Little Pieces. Frey's site actually includes a very funny exchange among his fans about my review. (You can find it under the heading "A Million Pieces of Shit" under "Messages.)
I began that review by saying, "This is the worst thing I've ever read." It was true at the time, but Frey is not a man to rest on his laurels. He has outdone himself. His new book is much, much worse than A Million Little Pieces. Seriously. At least AMLP had that whole rehab thing going for it, with the built-in suspense: will little Jimmy stay straight-n-sober, or will he return to the drugs, the drugs, O the terrible drugs?
In his new memoir, that bit of dramatic suspense is gone. We all know Frey stays sober, because he already told us that at the end of AMLP. So My Friend Leonard slogs doggedly through Frey's extraordinarily dull post-rehab life on the wagon. It never seems to cross his mind that the drugs were the only interesting thing about him. Memoirists like Frey and Augusten Burroughs belong to the long list of those who should never have stopped using drugs. The drugs might have made Frey more interesting, or they might have killed him. Either way, American literature would have benefited.
Frey's dullness is downright eerie. There really is something wrong with this guy, some strange variant of autism. He wanders from Chicago to Los Angeles, noticing nothing. He takes a job as a Mafia delivery boy (or so he claims), and notices nothing. He becomes a film writer, producer and director without remarking any of the quirks or verbal habits of Hollywood insiders.
Frey's only concern is to find ways to jerk tears out of his readers. When he brings someone onstage, you can be sure they'll die in a hackneyed, melodramatic manner within a few pages. Take his dog-buying story. He buys a pit bull from some gangbangers who boast that its sire was "Cholo, undefeated campeon" of East LA, but claims to be surprised when it grows up to be vicious. Yes, in spite of the fact that the puppy's sire is actually snarling at Jim when he buys the pup, straining at the wire to tear the idiot guero apart, it doesn't dawn on him that there might be a few behavioral problems down the line.
He comes to love the puppy. We know this because he tells us so. Frey has never been shy about bathos. He describes the dog as "my little boy, my mister big man, my best buddy." Aw. Then again, he names the pit bull "Cassius," as in Cassius Clay. Uh, Jim, doesn't that imply that you sorta knew the dog might get a little aggressive? As so often in assessing post-Reagan culture, you're left to wonder whether you're dealing with stupidity, lies, or some horribly adaptive mixture of both.
What glues all Frey's lies together into a tasty patty are his boo-hoo scenes. The sort of thing that flourished in the later stages of eighteenth-century "novels of sentiment," where the whole point of the surface narrative was to take the reader as quickly as possible from one stylized lachrymose tableau to the next.
The pit bull is just like every other character in this novel: it only appears so Frey can kill it off, giving his readers another good cry. The dog's death is typical: the story is stripped of all detail so that Frey can get to the death scene as fast as possible. So despite his endless professions of love for his "best buddy," he agrees to have Cassius put to death as soon as his vet recommends a golden shot. That seemed a little weird to me. Most people I know would have to think it over. Not Jim. But it's OK, because Jim cries as the dog is being killed. That's all that matters, the crying:
"I don't want to accept the vet's opinion but I know he's right. I look down at Cassius he's still sitting at my feet, I start to cry. He senses something is wrong he wants to make me feel better he starts licking my face. I put my arms around him and I cry and I tell him I love him, I love him so much...."
And then, with no pesky delay or details, it's off to the killing room: "The vet prepares the needle. I hold Cassius and tell him over and over that I love him and that I'll miss him and he kisses me, kisses me, kisses me..." No wonder Frey's best friend is in the Mafia -- the kiss of death comes naturally to him.
Frey finishes off the dog's-death scene with a sort of ejaculation: "He dies in my arms and I hold him and I cry, I cry, I cry." This is typical tearjerking-porn structure: the point is simply to get to the fuck scene and squirt. The fact that Frey's readers want to squirt tears rather than semen makes this an especially sleazy kind of porn.
I admit, it gives me the creeps -- and I wrote my dissertation on Sade. I can take nearly anything, but killing your dog to get your sick readers off -- that's what I call sick.
And scary. If Frey ever told me that he loved me -- not that that's very likely -- I'd be extremely nervous. I'd be afraid he needed another chapter: "I tell Dolan I love him and hug him and stick a knife in his back and give it a good twist and he gurgles and says, 'Sorry about those reviews, do you think you could get me to an emergency room?' and I push his body off the pier and I cry. I cry and cry and cry."
In fashioning his melodramatic subplots, Frey has learned a great secret: you can't lay it on too thick. Not when your fans are as thick as Frey's. Consider the first character to get killed off in this mess: Lilly, Frey's alleged girlfriend from the first novel. Even her name summons up the heroines of silent film. And her story would have had 'em reaching for the hankies a hundred years ago: sold into white slavery by her harlot mother! A slave to drink and drugs! Drawn to her old ways, Lilly flees rehab but is rescued at the last moment by our hero!
That was how we left Lilly in Frey's last episode, I mean "novel." Now, we learn that she's at a halfway house in Chicago, spending every day at the bedside of her dying grandmother -- her only decent relative! Meanwhile, Frey is in jail, paying for his drug-fueled crimes!
What will happen if Lilly, bereft of all hope, must face her grandmother's death before being reunited with Frey? Will our hero make it in time? You can guess how it turns out. Just think of the crudest, lamest plot cliche you can come up with. That's what Frey's going to do.
You can see why Frey was such a hit in Hollywood. There's something cinematic, in the very corniest sense, about his story. Naturally, Lilly's beloved grandma dies just 12 short hours before Frey is released. It's just a question of time now, as Frey rushed to succor poor Lilly. If this was a movie -- and God knows it will be -- you'd see the Frey-character at the wheel of his truck, speeding -- nay, hurtling! -- toward Chi-town, with that image superimposed on a map, where a line moves slowly -- oh, so slowly! -- from NC toward Illinois. Then we'd cut to Lilly, her lustrous raven tresses sprawled across Grandma's bed, weeping! Then back to Frey at the wheel! Then back to Lilly, walking like one drained of all hope into her lonely room! Back to Frey, speeding -- but the dot on the map advances so slowly! Then back to Lilly, as she takes the towel from her bathroom -- No, Lilly, no! Don't do it! Your rescuer is near at hand!
And of course, it would end with Lilly's feet swinging back and forth in mid-air. That was the point, of course: killing her off fast. For one thing, Frey is utterly hopeless with female characters, and Lilly is the worst of all. And after all, it's these weepy death scenes that Frey's readers are waiting for, panting heavily and masturbating their tear glands in anticipation.
When the beloved gets killed off, it's the cum-shot. And Frey lays it on thick and hot, with a little twist of necrophiliac petting at the morgue:
"I run my hands along the top of her head and through her hair.
I feel the contours of her face.
I kiss my fingers and I press them to her lips.
She is quiet.
I take her hand beneath the sheet. It is stiff and cold. I take her hand.
I am with her.
I hold her.
I love her.
She's at rest.
That last one-word paragraph would seem to be an instruction to the reader: "Cry, damn it! What are you waiting for? I already repeated the damn verb three times!"
Not that Frey is a man to skimp on repetitions. In the true tradition of sentimental fiction, he signals the tear-releasing moment in the simplest and most direct way possible: by repeating the word "cry" until even the densest reader (his natural audience) gets the point.
The best thing about killing off Lilly is that Frey can cry over and over about her death. He's not wasteful that way -- he squeezes every ounce of salt water out her. For instance, naturally Leonard, his fair Mafia godfather, finds out about Lilly hanging herself, which means he and Frey have to hug again. If you've read AMLP, you know that Frey can stretch an ordinary hug into a whole chapter, so this is nothing for him. He could write this one in his sleep. He may have, actually:
"[Leonard] motions me forward.
I step toward Leonard, he steps toward me. He opens his arms and puts them around me.
I'm sorry for your loss.
I start to speak, but I can't.
I'm so sorry.
I start to cry.
He hugs me.
I start to cry."
You longtime Frey fans will note all the master's usual touches here, especially the clinical precision in his description of the hug. The word "hug" comes a close second to "cry" in the Frey formula, and he never fails to make sure you get every detail, as in that classic of clarity, "I step toward Leonard, he steps toward me." Y'all got that? In other words, they sorta stepped toward each other. We need to be clear about this.
The all-time high for a Frey fan is when you can get "hug" and "cry" together, twirling round one after the other, as in the passage above -- a real kick, like a speedball only legal.
And the fun's not over. No sooner has that chapter ended -- before Frey's hyperventilating readers have even had time to wipe the eye-cum off their cheeks -- than it's time for another cry-fest. You can't have too much of a good thing, Frey reasons. So he starts his next chapter with what works for him:
In the shower.
As I brush my teeth.
As I get dressed.
God, I look forward to seeing the Cliff Notes version of this novel: Theme: This is a novel about hugging and crying. Contents: Chapter One. The protagonist cries. Chapter Two. The protagonist hugs Leonard, and they both cry. Chapter Three. The protagonist takes a shower and cries...
Lilly, once she's dead, is the gift that keeps on giving. Because there's her grave to visit, after all. You wouldn't want to skip that -- I mean YOU probably would, and so would I, but not the freaks who loved this novel. They, apparently, sobbed along enthusiastically with the following bit of bathos, as Frey, Leonard and Leonard's bodyguard "Snapper" watch Lilly push up the daisies:
"I look at Leonard, tears are streaming down his face. He speaks.
They're [the headstones] beautiful.
I've never seen anything so beautiful.
I nod, start to tear up."
Of course, Lilly's gravesite is only a teaser for the big tear-jerk, the death of the title character, Leonard. Leonard is Jimmy's mentor and magical protector, always there to give him $30,000 or hug him or intimidate bullies who pick on little Jimmy. But then Leonard vanishes and when Jimmy finds him, Leonard is dying of AIDS in San Francisco. Leonard is gay! Oh, what bathos ensues! See, it never crossed Jimmy's mind, not for a second, that there might be an erotic element to the sudden, intense affection lavished on him by this older, unmarried man with a preference for Speedos, white cars, and modern painting, this gangster who showed zero interest in women, and who loved nothing better than hugging young Jimmy as often as possible. Never! Why, when Jim finds out you could've knocked him down with a feather boa!
Naturally Leonard has to die, and naturally there's -- you guessed it: hugging and crying. At this point, near the end of the book, Frey's discovered another way to squeeze more pathos out of every word: his chapters consist of single, brief paragraph per page. It gives the ending a nice hushed feel, and stretches out the big cum-shot as well. Here's a sample, so intense that it gets a page to itself:
"Freddie [Leonard's caregiver] brings me food I can hardly eat. He takes Bella [Frey's surviving dog] for walks. When it gets dark, I get out of the car go inside. I step through the door I start crying again I walk straight up to my room I lie in bed I cry."
Let's just close the bedroom door and let Frey have a good cry while we consider the question of truth in his story. First of all, Frey's stories depend on reader belief. If they're not true, they're fake sob stories. Don't try to tell me about "fiction" and "suspension of disbelief"; I literally wrote the book on that subject (Poetic Occasion from Milton to Wordsworth, Palgrave Press, London, 2000). So truth matters, more than any other consideration, in these memoirs.
And I have this funny feeling that there is no truth in them at all. Thanks to the Net, you can check out people's criminal records these days. And from what I've found in several days of looking, James Frey, who has become a millionaire celebrity by boasting about his bad-boy past, has -- gasp! -- no criminal record at all. Could it be true? Could this rugged survivor be no more than a trust-fund boy with a gift for woofing?
I know where I'd put my money. But I can't claim to be a real expert at Net tracking. I'm asking some of you online Deerstalker types, eXile readers with a taste for afflicting the comfortable, to help us find out whether Frey's tough-guy stories are all lies. Let's find out if the jerk has any criminal record at all. And then, let justice be done.
Well, maybe not justice, but revenge. If you don't see the need for it yet, go to Frey's website and watch the bastard hugging gullible literature groupies in every city on his book tour. Revenge! Legions of the unhugged, the eXiled, spread thy black leathery pinions to the virtual wind and fly!
John Dolan is the author of Pleasant Hell, published by Capricorn Publishing.