James Frey is a controversial figure. His first book, a Million Little Pieces, was quietly received before word of mouth snowballed sales into thousands. The crescendo was reached by the book appearing as part of Oprah's `book club'. Millions read Frey's story of reaching rock bottom, scrabbling and scratching in the dirt before a raw, real redemption. And then success inevitably brought suspicion. Journalists took a cynical comb to the story, and decided that James Frey was a liar. His story didn't stack up. His sufferings were faked, his pains embellished and his difficulties dreamt. Now in addition to being a drug addicted, alcoholic criminal he was a lying, drug addicted, alcoholic criminal. Or worse still, he was just a liar. And for the author of a work of biographical non-fiction that is a problem.
I loved a Million Little Pieces. I loved how someone completely messed up could produce a work of such harrowing, yet moving beauty. I loved the style, how the prose was as rough and jagged and real as the author. I loved how even someone who had messed up their lives really badly could be saved. For someone suffering from his own demons it was a message I needed and absorbed. So when it seemed that the story was fake it ruined the message. The raw truth, the honesty and plunging lows had made me love the book. The revelation that it was fiction made me think twice. And so I had stayed away from My Friend Leonard, the follow up to a Million Little Pieces. It was over a year after its release before I would come to read it.
I realised that Frey's dishonesty was going to be an issue from the book by juxtaposing the `disclaimer' on the first few pages with the opening line. In the disclaimer Frey explains that the book is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, and in particular that "I did not spend 90 days in jail and Porterhouse is a fictional character." This is then followed by Chapter 1. "On my first day in jail, a three hundred pound man named Porterhouse hit me in the back of the head with a metal tray." But I decided to read on.
And now I am glad I did. Because not only is My Friend Leonard a fine book, it enabled me to appreciate his original, and so-far best work, without thinking the worst of the author.
The book covers the period of Frey's life from leaving the rehabilitation centre, through prison and over the following years as he slowly rebuilds a seemingly irreparable life. We last saw Frey stabilising at the rehab centre, but this was stabilisation from a desperate position. Over the course of My Friend Leonard we see how Frey manages to overcome the manifest temptations to return to his former life of addiction, and forges a new life. It is a book that shows the importance of friendship, the lengths people can go to help others, and just how resilient man can be even when faced with the most impossible tragedies and difficulties.