Free James Frey! 

In defense of the post-truth memoir

Monday, Jan 23 2006

Page 4 of 5

It’s not about honesty, anyway. It’s about maintaining one’s own mythology. Which is why neither Frey’s embellishment nor W’s masquerade is malicious. Or not necessarily so. Or not, you know, intentionally so. Or maybe they are, but what the hell . . . Who wouldn’t want to repaint the rearview mirror, if the colors didn’t run?

Calling Million Little a memoir functions as a sort of semantic enhancement, padding Frey’s literary basket with violence and excess, the same way George Bush stuffed his flight-suit jock with what appeared to be either sweat socks or a mute Chihuahua. So he could look even more studly while pretending to land a jet and declaring, Mission Accomplished.

There’s more than shared epistemological leanings between the Bush and Frey sons. Bush’s dad bought him a baseball team, enabling the president to spin a tale of business acumen and experience that paved the way to the White House. In this case, it’s about proving a fuckup was functional and working. The Freys, by contrast, bought their boy a stint in rehab. And that, as much as George Bush’s Texas Ranger time, engendered some kind of core myth from which sprung a stirring saga of redemption, inspiration and personal triumph over bad habits. Like George, Mr. Frey rejects the promises of Bill W.–based recovery. He does it on his own.

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“For most of the 20th century,” Mr. Frey has opined, “when people like me grew up wanting to be writers, people like Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer — none of these people got into writing and didn’t take it fucking seriously. They got into it saying, ‘I’m going to write books that change people’s lives. I’m going to write the best book of my generation. I’m going to be remembered as someone who changed the way people think and write and live. I don’t have a problem saying I’m the fucking best.’?”

Well, okay then. At the outset of Frey’s Checkers moment on Larry King the day after Smoking Gun opened fire, Mr. King lobbed questions at his guest with the ferocity of a thalidomide discus thrower. King mentioned that all of the above actually wrote fiction. But Frey was ready for him.

“They didn’t have memoirs then,” he said. Which is perfect. What better response than to impose a fictional history — or lack thereof — insisting his genre of choice is no more than a newborn. Again, I can only say hats off. It’s not easy sitting with your feet in the fire on national TV, and the “memoirs-were-just-invented” defense was a gutsy way to play it. When I have to think on my feet, I tend to start babbling in Yiddish and blame Himmler.

Of course, whatever St. Augustine thought he was doing, all those centuries ago, when he wrote down his life to show his progress from hopeless sinner to chatty saint — it really is of no never-mind. Neither, for that matter, are the autobiographical efforts of Benvenuto Cellini, Joan of Arc, C.G. Jung, Gypsy Rose Lee, Malcolm X, Willie Sutton or any other pre–Jimmy F. autobios.

But maybe I’m selling the whole deal short. My gut feeling is that what Frey, who’s clearly a talented, high-IQ kind of guy, most likely means is that the Post-Truth Memoir is in its infancy. Truth in an era when it’s no longer a function of memory or experience, but simply an assertion.

At the end of the proverbial day, my respect for Monsieur Frey and Madame Leroy has skyrocketed. Because this isn’t about a “hoax.” The very word is redundant. We’re living in End-Time on Planet Bush: all hoax all the time.

So okay, maybe I didn’t always find the my-pain-is-bigger-than-your-pain depictions in Million Little convincing. I probably would have if I were 16. Plus — who’s kidding whom? While it’s true, as Oprah declared in defense of her bitch, that jail marked a fraction of the time devoted to actual rehab action, it’s jail that lends the whole thing cred. You can jive the bad-boy-adoring sorority girls, but dope fiends know. Jail is the alky and addict’s Vietnam. Right up there with Hep C, an ex-spouse or two, and a Buick LeSabre last parked somewhere in Reseda that’s still missing. The technical term for what’s missing here is consequences. But never mind. James — that vicious maniac! — tells us he didn’t just do his time; he smacked a cop on the way in. I mean James-the-character, not James-the-guy-at-the-computer.

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