You all know by now that James Frey has fallen, like those dictator statues fall: stiffly, clumsily, with plenty of applause from the same mob that cheered him until the tide turned.
And I've played my own dweeby role in that gloopy tableau, jumping up and down at the back of the suddenly pro-truth crowd, yelping ineffectually, "Hey, I claim that scalp! I shot'im first!"
I fingered Frey as a no-talent fraud back in an eXile review in May 2003, and followed up with a review of his second novel saying outright that he was inventing the story, that he was just a beer-soaked fratboy with no drug creds. In that review I called for someone to do the sort of documentary investigation that Smoking Gun finally published in January 2006. Of course, my esteemed colleagues at Smoking Gun somehow forgot to mention that I gave them the whole damn idea, but that's journalism-no honor among jackals, and I was a fool to expect it.
Frey's fans were far more willing to give me credit, in a sense. They've been sending me hate mail every single day for the last two years, increasing to up to 20 messages a day ever since Bishop Oprah canonized Frey as patron saint of fake rage in front of 100 million lonely American women who went all flushed and giddy at the sight of Frey, the ultimate fixer-upper: the kind that doesn't actually need any fixing, a blue-chip Soho loft with a carefully applied coat of flaking ghetto paint and exposed brick walls.
At first I was puzzled by the fact that most of Frey's fans were women. Once again, I was deluded by all that Berkeley nonsense, assuming that women would object to the gross misogyny in Frey's novels, his habit of killing off women characters for cheap tears, his atavistic Hemingway swagger, his inevitable conclusion (in My Friend Leonard) that chicks are chapters while men are books-that only homoerotic friendships between Manly Men are truly worthy.
Nope. I learned the same dismal lesson for the millionth time: the bad old world is alive and well, reclaiming the few pockets of territory it lost in the hippie days. The world remains the sadistic scrubland it's always been, and women are its most fervent, desperate soldiers. They've clearly been dying for a Frey to come along and tell them it's still the 1930s, when white guys got in bar brawls, when steelworkers cried, mafia killers just needed love, and walking oxymorons like Frey came in from the cold with cool scars and great stories, eager to settle down and swap tears, if not spit.
Though I usually answered a bit facetiously to these angry disciples-told most of them they needed to go back on drugs as soon as possible-I did end up respecting their devotion: fine soldiers in a stupid cause, like the Confederates. What their hate mail lacked in literacy and intelligence, it made up in sheer ferocity. And sifting through the pattern of their arguments, I got a grim reeducation in the ideology of ordinary fuckin' people.
The poor bastards! The filthy trash! They're pitiful and despicable by turns, flicking from one to the other phrase by phrase. So eager to be duped, desperate for a free sob, displacing their bitterness at the way life has cheated them onto those who interrupt their sob porn sessions weeping sweetly as Frey "bears [sic] his soul."
Their core value was faith in emotion, grounded in the fact that not a one of them could read or write. In fact, I was stunned at the number of emails boasting proudly that Frey's books were the only ones the writer had read in years. I guess this comes from decades of patronizing illiterates with "Reading Is Fun" soft-sell campaigns; I guess I'm supposed to be grateful, as a representative of the bad old elitist tradition, that millions of people who move their lips when they read actually finished a whole book-gold stars for everybody, a hall pass for the ones who read both Frey's books.
But it's a very, very strange argument, as if I were to start sounding off on mathematics with the boast that it took me three years to pass Algebra in high school, or show up as color man on an MLB broadcast bragging that I hate baseball and still hold the season record in Pleasant Hill's Little League-not one hit or walk in an entire season.
These readers actually consider themselves noble savages, whose responses are all the purer because they haven't sullied themselves with books. That fraud is a perfect complement to Frey's: he pretends to be a scarred veteran and they pretend to be cultural virgins, rather than thrashed sluts who've been fucked a million times by every after-school special, every Brian's Song death-porn tearjerker, and can't imagine anything better.
But why go on? I'll just end up playing into the hands of the Tweedsters, the mass-produced curmudgeons who are every bit as stupid and gullible, cannon-fodder of an equally fake and cheesy, though ostensibly anti-populist sensibility-the asses who think DeLillo's a good writer, insist Pynchon's ponderous shaggy-dog stories are a laugh riot. Frey's fans aren't as literate as those people, but I wouldn't say they're any more gullible. Gullible seems to be piped into the water supply these days, an equal-opportunity syndrome.
The central argument Frey's defenders deployed against me in their email attacks was one I never would've imagined: sales figures: "people are buying [Frey's book] and that in itself makes it worthy." And behind that, the core value, sticking with the herd, ingenuously expressed by a certain hate-mailer named "Angela," a typical Frey fan: "Why is it that you seem to be the only critic who has such bad things to say about "A Million Little Pieces"? Why has this book gotten such rave reviews by other professionals like you?"
That last question is actually a very good one. Why indeed did all those other "professionals" fall for Frey? Well, Angela, it's because they're suckers like you, and can't actually read any better than you amateurs.
Strange, I used to assume everybody could read. Clearly not. None of the emails I got from Frey loyalists dealt with any of the literary arguments I made, such as my claim that Frey's dialogue was ludicrous, stilted and archaic, lifted from old movies about tough guys of the 1930s who die showing their tender insides. Americans read everything like Scripture: they grasp the book, shut their eyes and make a global decision to believe or not to believe, and once they've chosen to believe, all critical faculties (if any existed) are deactivated. The whole notion of fiction, the idea that we're Coleridgean arbiters of quality as we read-so dear to the Professors' guild-is pure self-serving crap. We read like the Calvinist Ulster creeps who infested the New World and bequeathed us their vicious, anti-Enlightenment hysteria.
And when you combine that credulous literalness with the worship of success, you get Frey's kind of story: rescue fantasies, doomed heroes who don't die. It's the sentimental oxymoron, the key trope of degraded 20th-century tastes. Frey's happy ending is the key to his success, and a sure sign he's a fake. And in a particularly bitter twist, as I noted in my article last December, he stole the druggy details of his story from a real addict, Eddie Little, who died the authentic way, OD'd in a cheap hotel.
I've been reading Little's two memoirs, Another Day in Paradise (1997) and Steel Toes (2001), and I'm amazed by his talent-and the brazen, obvious ripoff of his books Frey got away with. Frey's a classic example of cunning stupidity; there's a very effective method to his thefts from Little. He takes the tone and basic plots of Little's stories and then flips all the grim details into happy fantasies. Even Frey's celebrated dental ordeal, in which he loses his front teeth and endures root canal without anesthesia (another lie, of course) is lifted from Little's second novel, in which Eddie has his teeth bashed out with a steel bar in a racial brawl in prison. Little doesn't even mention the pain; it's not exotic in his world. Only for someone like Frey is pain remote enough to be eroticized.
When Little describes sniffing glue in youth prison, Frey, too naive and stupid to realize Little and friends resorted to this horrible poison because nothing else but Pruno was available, simply steals the noun, and includes glue in his fake list of drugs abused-a sure sign for middleclass druggie readers like me that he was a lying fool, because nobody with access to decent drugs would touch that stuff.
But crude mistakes like that never hurt Frey. Like many stupid people, he had cunning enough to more than compensate for his lack of integrity and brains.
In fact, in order to understand what made Frey a hit and Little just another dead junkie, it's worth taking a close look at how Frey transformed Little's books into dreck that Oprah could love. Consider, then, the first chapter in Little's second novel, Steel Toes, into the opening chapter of his own second novel, My Friend Leonard.
Steel Toes opens with Little in a Midwestern prison for young criminals-a "gladiator school," as he calls it. My Friend Leonard opens with Frey in prison. Little is in solitary after a failed escape attempt, so he has plenty of time to remember his girlfriend Rosie "dying from pain and a life of abuse and infection:" Frey takes that one-paragraph flash of grief and turns it into a truly comical Whitmanesque anaphora on Lilly, his (fake) dead prostitute lover: "Lilly with long black hair and pale skin and blue eyes like deep, clean water. Lilly whose father deserted her and whose mother sold Lilly's body for drugs when she was thirteen. Lilly who became a crackhead and a pillpopper and hitchhiked across the country on her back so that she could escape her Mother. Lilly who has been raped:"
It wouldn't occur to Eddie Little to make that sort of story into a lyric poem. He'd seen it. It wasn't lyrical to him.
Little's description of prison features clearly authentic dialogue that would have offended Frey's female fans, like the very funny, raunchy descriptions of the heroic fucking he and his friends use to pass the time: "This white boy is goin' to college, smoke pot, take acid, and fuck every bitch on campus, fuck'em bowlegged. Fat ones, skinny ones, tall ones, short ones, midgets, all of'em."
Frey's account of prison has not a hint of that sort of unsentimental talk. Moreover, he would never use a taboo word like "white boy." This is the most striking pattern of excision in his theft from Little: Little focuses on racial hatred as the central fact of prison life; Frey invents a happy bonding lie with a black prisoner. Little insists on the truth: "[In prison] you stay with your own. Color lines are as solid as the penitentiary steel that surrounds us. You eat with, get loaded with, exercise, gamble, live and die with your own. Cross those lines and you're out of the car, roadkill."
Little comes close to an apostrophe to his fantasy-addicted liberal readers in insisting on the fact of racial hatred in prison: "This is the way it is. If you crave martyrdom, sit at the wrong table, you'll get your cross, crown of thorns thrown in for free."
Now guess what Frey does with Little's honest treatment of race. And remember, the key to understanding Frey is that he realized you can't lay it on too thick for an audience addicted to silly fantasies.
Well, no matter what you guessed, you probably underestimated the sheer schmaltz, the stinking cheese, of Frey's narrative. On his first day in prison, he's clobbered by a 300-pound black inmate. Yet by page 2, Frey and the hulking thug are best buds.
Every single detail of their courtship is wrong, in a very adaptive way. First, that name, "Porterhouse." The guy tells Frey he calls himself that because "he's big and juicy like a fine-ass steak." That's such utter, patronizing, Jeffersons-style blaxploitation crap that the fact not one reviewer objected to it tells you Frey was right: to be a bestseller, play it for total morons.
Porterhouse's backstory displays the old-school S&M romance Frey's female fans just love: he threw his wife out of a seventh-floor window for fucking another man, then took the man to a vacant lot and blew his arms and legs off with a shotgun and then "waited thirty minutes to let the man feel the pain of the shots, pain he said was equivalent to the pain he felt when he saw the man fucking his wife."
I guess that's love, for you normal people.
Once again I want to smack myself for thinking that I, with my pitiful Sadean fantasies, was the sick one. You decent people go way, way past my kind, and still think you're the salt of the earth. Reminds me of one of Eddie Little's excellent Chandler-style similes, when he describes a sky "as clear as a moron's conscience."
Frey swaggers further into patronizing fantasy when he learns that Porterhouse is illiterate. Frey spends the rest of his time in stir reading to his "big and juicy" friend, introducing the poor black man to what he considers great literature. I can't resist quoting Frey's account of the process in full: [Brace yourselves! - Ed.]
"I read slowly and clearly, taking an occasional break to drink a glass of water or smoke a cigarette. In the past twelve weeks we have worked our way through Don Quixote, Leaves of Grass, and East of Eden. We are currently reading War and Peace, which is Porterhouse's favorite. He smiled at the engagement of Andrei and Natasha. He cried when Anatole betrayed her. He cheered at the battle of Borodino, and though he admired the Russian tactics, he cursed while Moscow burned. When we're not reading, he carries War and Peace around with him. He cradles it as if it were his child. He says that if he could, he would read it again and again."
Amazing, isn't it? Just try to list the lies, treacle, and condescending bullshit in that paragraph-Porterhouse comes across as Frey's own Koko the talking gorilla. Just typing it out forces me to confront them in detail, and I realize it's impossible to blame Frey very much.
He gave his readers more than enough clues to realize he was a complete fraud. Nobody with an ounce of sense, with a trace of integrity or the slightest attachment to reality, could have read that paragraph and continued to believe. Even the list of great books begs you to call its bluff! Every one of those books is in the class of unreadable classics. I've spent my life reading and yet never managed to get past the first chapter of Don Quixote. Comedy has a short shelf life, and what wowed 'em in Castile a few centuries back is now paper pulp.
And Leaves of Grass? Oh, come ON! Porterhouse would either have taken Whitman's hint and sodomized Frey to those King James cadences or simply whopped him with a tray again to stop the noise. Ah, but the crowning lie is that Porterhouse loved War and Peace. Again, this is the old noble savage, cultural virgin myth. Ever try to make somebody read that book? Unless they're Slavic majors, they can't even get the names straight, and unless they're born phonies they'll admit they're rather have six root canals on a time-dilating drug than be forced to slog to the end with that "moralizing infant" Tolstoy.
Yeah, I have to say that as conmen go, Frey played fair. He gave his readers every chance. They begged for it, swallowed every drop, came back for more, while rejecting Eddie Little, who had told the bleak truth about the world Frey turned into middle-class erotica.
And now the same mob is calling for his head. Well, I insist (in a reedy yelp from the back of the crowd) that every "professional" critic who rubberstamped Frey's obvious lies be pulled down with him, and then the millions of readers who masturbated to his tear-porn, then acted shocked when it was revealed as a lie.
I agree with the Leprechaun who whispers in Ralph Wiggins' ear: "Burn them, laddie! Burn them all!"
John Dolan is the author of the novel Pleasant Hell, published by Capricorn Publishing.