James Frey has never been shy about his towering literary ambition. Since he burst onto the scene in 2003 with A Million Little Pieces, the best-selling, highly charged memoir dissecting his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, Frey has ruffled feathers and raised temperatures by saying things like:
"When I decided I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t get into it to be a guy who sold 15 books and got a review in the local paper. I’m in this to be one of the great writers of my time."
What is often left out of the accounts of Frey’s supposed overreaching is what he usually says next: "I don’t say that I am one of the great writers, which I think is an important distinction. But that’s the ambition, for sure. I want to be read in 75 years."
Whether Frey’s new book, My Friend Leonard, will be read in 75 years is, of course, impossible to say. But it will certainly be read – widely read – this year. While somewhat different in tone from Pieces (there is more humor and less rage, for example) My Friend Leonard is just as compelling as the first book, with the same electrifying narrative energy, stylistic daring and atmosphere of emotional risk.
My Friend Leonard takes up about where Pieces left off. Out of recovery, Frey does a stint in jail for a past drug conviction, then sets out to rebuild his life. He is advised and assisted at critical junctures by his friend Leonard, a larger-than-life Las Vegas gangster 30 years his senior whom he met in rehab and who has decided to treat Frey like the son he never had. Leonard helps Frey financially by employing him occasionally as a bagman for some of his enterprises. He guides Frey through the purchase of his first Picasso. He uses a little unfriendly persuasion when Frey’s neighbor seems about to turn murderous after an incident between their dogs. Skeptical readers might wonder if Leonard is a sort of idealized, if hard-bitten, fairy godfather. But Frey says otherwise.
"Did the stuff in the book really happen? Yeah, it did. My girlfriend killed herself the way I wrote it. Leonard helped me the way I said he helped me, died the way he died. The events in the book are the events of my life. But that’s not to say that I didn’t pick and choose what to use and how to use it. The goal was to write a great book, to create something that somebody will feel good about having read. It’s a sort of juggling act, where I have to be true to the events and the people, but where I also know that I am writing a book and that I have to be true to what the book should be," Frey says in a gravelly voice during a telephone interview.
The 35-year-old Frey and his wife, Maya, a creative director at a New York advertising agency, had their first child, a daughter, in December and are in the midst of moving to an apartment "that is a bit more baby-friendly" in New York’s Tribeca district. Frey takes the call at the home of friends, and as he talks, he moves from room to room ahead of his friends’ noisy family life.
"One thing that’s always been important to me is that nobody who has ever been in one of my books has ever had a problem with anything I’ve written," Frey continues. "They’ve never disputed my version of events or felt offended by it, even when I didn’t write about them in a positive way. Which means something."
At the very least it means that Frey is exceptionally good at conveying the emotional truths behind the events he relates. His portrait of his friendship with Leonard is deeply resonant and offers a fuller human portrait of a gangster than you’re likely to find anywhere else.
What is most striking – and most difficult to describe – is Frey’s manner of telling his tale. Here, as in A Million Little Pieces, Frey’s style is raw, visceral and emotionally electric. Frey says that when he set out to be a writer he studied writers like Hemingway, Henry Miller and Baudelaire and noted that each had a voice, a signature style that sounded like no one else’s. He deliberately set out to develop a recognizable style all his own.
"People read my books and think because they flow very easily and very simply that it must just come out that way," Frey says. "It doesn’t. I work very hard and I’m very, very deliberate and methodical in how I work."
In fact, Frey says one of the things that sets him apart from "smarter or more naturally gifted" aspiring writers of his generation is his "ability to sit there for 10 hours and get done what I need to get done, without ever losing confidence that I can do it. And to do that day after day after day after day after day."
So it’s no real surprise to learn that since completing the manuscript of My Friend Leonard, Frey has finished the screenplay for A Million Little Pieces, which will be filmed later this year, and written the script for a TV pilot for Fox. He is currently working on a screenplay for Paramount. Earlier this year, he wrote introductions for British reissues of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn.
Miller’s bold presentation of his life in his books had a powerful philosophical influence on Frey’s development as a writer, just as his friend Leonard had a powerful influence on his development as a human being. "I’ve learned a lot of things from a lot of people." Frey says. "And they all boil down to similar things: you have to be willing to hurt for what you want. You have to risk, to gain. You have to be willing to feel pain and deal with pain. You have to decide what you want out of life and be willing to pay the consequences if you want to have a great life. It’s worth it. And you’re a sucker if you don’t."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.