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Free James Frey!

ILLUSTRATIONS BY RONALD KURNIAWAN

pq2: 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.

As anyone not in the grips of a massively exaggerated crank-and-ether binge for the past week or so must surely know, putative khaki badass and macho-adjacent rich kid James Frey has been outed as having invented large chunks of his criminal curriculum vitae.

Here was an author on top: adored by his publishers, their retail outlets and legions of passionately devoted readers. And what kind of thanks does he get? Instead of a call from the Pulitzer committee, or a Nobel nod, he’s contacted by The Smoking Gun, a batch of nitpicking idealists with nothing better to do than comb his prose for invented episodes. Little things, like not doing any time when you say you were inside for months, bonding with cons; or claiming to have caused a train wreck and killed a girl, when you didn’t do either. (It just happened that she died, and the makings of operatic catastrophe were all there!)

To which Oprah Winfrey, the woman who bequeathed him a Book Club kiss and launched him into the mega-sales stratosphere, said, more or less, “So what?” The doubters can call him a liar. He can be derided in print by morally superior literary peers. (Mary Karr, whose memoir, The Liars’ Club, remains the best of breed, declared that James had “the moral stature of a mollusk.”) But that’s missing the point. We’re talking melodrama, not morality. Salvation and entertainment, in no particular order. “Let the haters hate!” snarls almost-in-jail-once Jimmy on his Web site. And he’s right. Galileo was shunned by all the big dogs of his day, too. Same with Leroy Neiman.

Far from diminishing his genius, the fact that pit-bull-head-size chunks of Frey’s memoir are rank fabrications serves only to highlight it. Sure, James Frey could have stuck to the facts. It would have been easy. But an innovator doesn’t take the easy way. He innovates. Ignores history for impact. Invents incidents when incidents need inventing, whatever it takes to render a parade of grandiose, ferocious episodes of chemical self-immolation, garnished with boatloads of puke, blood and hugs. He is that bold!

Forget the faux scandale about whether this or that, you know, actually happened. This is all you need to know: BF (Before Frey), writers lived in fear. Slaves to veracity. But James Frey, whose life story rivals only Harry Potter’s in popularity, has sniffed the air and caught a whiff of Tomorrow. He has Gone Beyond. Has, by the simple act of casting off accuracy in favor of invoked emotion, ushered in a revolution.

Why bother with accuracy when the feelings are real? Was it three hours in an empty office, or three months behind bars? Doesn’t matter! What the writer felt when the stuff that really happened was going on is exactly the same as what his character feels when stuff that didn’t really happen goes on in the book. And that’s what the reader feels. Keep up with me here.

Imagine, along with the author, what it would be like to be stuck in the joint with all kinds of heavy-duty criminal types. Just because it never happened does not mean it didn’t hurt. Or that the book itself is not still a memoir. What goes between the covers is not just a man’s history, but a history of what he wishes he had been; life is whatever you think it was. Virtual autobiography for a virtual world — perfect!

Now, finally, a memoirist can cook up epic confrontations and conflicts worthy of the outsize emotions he already feels about himself. And why not? We already have the ability to generate all manner of genuine-looking photographs. If the technology’s there, why shouldn’t a writer Photoshop his personal history, too? Like Oprah said, it’s still valuable. It’s still his story.

What this author has done amounts to nothing less than liberation. After Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, the writer is free, if he or she wants to be, from oppressive, vaguely Old Europe-y notions about what is or isn’t “nonfiction.” Like our current president, whose life arc parallels Frey’s on so many levels, the self-proclaimed Addict, Alcoholic and Criminal in A Million Little Pieces has stepped over standards and precedent as an impediment to Getting the Job Done. The job, in this case, being the creation of a history compatible with one’s own myth.

It’s fucking beautiful.

But wait . . . I swear, I’m so excited I’m spotting. Which may have to do with the hernia operation I endured this morning with nothing but a can of Solarcaine and a half bottle of expired Anacin — which I actually CRUNCH, motherfucker — to take the edge off.

 

The whole hernia procedure is not, like, going to make me give up my sobriety. I’m going to HANG ON. Because my favorite writer did, and his bravery in the face of fantastic agony — some of it dental — gives me hope that I, too, can make it through. Without drugs and alcohol. And without having to sit around some church basement pretending to give a fuck what some Sanka-swilling, sugar-scarfing freak who wouldn’t knock over a 7-Eleven if his life depended on it has to say about God. Yeah thanks, Pops, now why don’t you go home and change your pants for New Year’s? When you’re a really manly man, you can cure yourself.

Not, by the way, that I ever knocked off any 7-Elevens. I’m not saying that. I’m saying I feel like I might have. In the course of my out-of-control, desperate and violent past, there could have been some convenience-store situations. That is to say, I may experience the despair and soul-death of a man who has knocked over convenience stores — though, technically, if you’re going to go all Smoking Gun on my ass, I was held for shoplifting M&Ms. Peanut.

The kind that feel like little skulls between my pain-racked teeth. The chocolate mushing to bloody brown with every bite.Blood. Mouth. Peanuts.

Okay, okay. Fuck the bullshit. I wasn’t exactly arrested. There was a security guard, in a turban. Whom I turned into a cop for dramatic purposes. And fuck you if you think I need to embellish my super-bad criminal status by describing how I smacked him in the face with the jerky rack. Jerky everywhere.

Preserved meat. Which I ate off the floor on all fours. Like a wolverine . . .

The essential truth, the truth that matters, is that I was an action-packed addict. I didn’t sit around. A thing I might have done is hit a cop with the beef-jerky rack. A detail that will be just as true when I’m throwing up in my grave as it is right the fuck now. The fact that policemen do not wear turbans, especially in Muncie, Indiana, as some logger with no life whatsofuckingever would no doubt point out on a Web page devoted to the subject, means nothing.

But forget all that. What matters is, thanks to this groundbreaker, this boundary-smasher, future personal historians need no longer buy into bullshit categories like This Fucking Happened and This Fucking Didn’t.

But Oh God! Fucking son of a bitch, shit — Christ — hell! I’m vomiting blood out a hole in the back of my neck. Spraying strangers. The town hates me. I am an awful man in an oxford-cloth shirt and perfectly creased pants . . .

No wait. Jesus, what am I saying? That’s not even my life. I apologize. Hard to resist the fevered call of what the WWF might call EXTREME NONFICTION. Prose as real as wrestling!

Somehow, five minutes of poring over Frey’s gory-glorious bildungsroman makes me want to exorcise some demons from my own imagined past. Makes me crave a chance to mine my own trove of searing memories — the kind of memories only memoirists have, of really high-impact scenarios, where everything is realer than real. In a staccato style. That hurts. But in a real and life-changing way.

You don’t want my past, asshole. I’m talking about every beating from the police, every slamming cell door, every On your knees, Jimmy Olsen! in the Quentin sauna — I’m pretty sure Quentin has a sauna — whether it happened or not. Because all of it has made me stronger, forged my will in the machismo-dripping inferno that is jail. Even if I’ve only seen it in movies and Oz reruns.

Haters like to make a big deal out of whether I really murdered the rabbi who asked me to take the dreidel out of his pocket and cup it. Maybe I did. And maybe I didn’t. You smoke crack and guzzle brewskis under a parked bus for two weeks and see how your fact-to-fantasy ratio shakes out.

With memoirs, it’s the story behind the story that moves the unit. People pretend it’s about the writing. But please! Would the incomparable construct of JT LeRoy have packed the same allure with the face of some fusty 40-year-old alterna-lady on the back cover? How much more happening to have an HIV-positive, drug-addicted transgender teen prostitute at the literary helm? Leave the author’s mug off the cover — then explain that he’s a she, or he’s a shy he, fresh from the street. Which provides the romance of the gutter for all those readers who’ve never actually been there . . .

 

Lots of people believe LeRoy, who turns out to be one Amanda Koop, and Frey owe their readers some kind of apology. But for what?

Love it or hate it, A Million Little Pieces has an undeniable power to make the hearts of young women and men beat faster. So what if it’s Harlequin Romance for frat boys? To me, that’s an achievement. And cancels the self-righteous chorus calling for clarification, explanation — the Whole Truth and Nothing But. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

In some slap-me-if-I-sound-like-a-grad-student meta way, Frey managed, or did manage for too short a while, to retrofit his own past and pass it off as true. But the choice of truths about himself that he wants to plant in the public mind leaves him more exposed than the most detailed fact-checking womb-to-tomber ever could. That he was willing to pass his creations off on Oprah bespeaks a more substantial set of balls than any faux episode he survives in the actual text. On the other hand, nobody wants to dress up in Norman Mailer drag and end up coming off like Vanilla Ice.

When his accusers popped up on the Internet, compassion, morbid fascination and interest in the man got all tangled up. Call me an old marshmallow, but I’m always a softy for an underdog. Even if he is a born-rich, pretend desperado whose greatest gaffe may have been knocking over the dean’s hors d’oeuvres table? Who among us has never conflated deeds with dreams? Even if it never made us millions.

Seeing the author show up on Larry King to face the music with his mom by his side — well, it was one of those television moments you feel privileged to witness. After all the hardcore PR, you half expected to see Bob Mitchum roll onto the set with a five-day beer fur and take a bite out of the microphone. Instead, we’re treated to a well-behaved young prepster in a button-down shirt, the Richie Rich who gets his mom to spring him from detention. Short of finding out Frey was the third member of Milli Vanilli, it couldn’t have been more exciting.

He was doing what he had to do. Even if, at the expense of his tough-guy image, it meant sitting with clenched butt and troubled puppy eyes by his mother’s side. Perhaps, after a dozen years off the hard stuff, his body has begun producing Depo-Provera, keeping him as docile as a Brooks Brothers castrato. Been there, buddy! Personally, I liked the way he handled himself on air. Not afraid to go meek when necessary. This, after all, is a man who had FTBSITTTD (FUCK THE BULLSHIT IT’S TIME TO THROW DOWN) tattooed on himself. But is it throwing down if your mom’s involved? I don’t pretend to know.

(And yes, fan-clubbers, the scuttlebutt is that after the Larry King appearance, James has made one key addendum to the author’s statement for future editions: His sobriety mantra is no longer just HOLD ON. It’s . . . HOLD ON AND CALL YOUR MOM!)

Let the legions of self-righteous pundits like Tucker Carlson bloviate. Let concerned professionals like Dr. Drew remind us that Frey’s John Wayne–style road to clean and soberdom might steer busloads of desperate juiceheads, tweakers, crack-dogs and junkies clear of the twelve-step arena that might well save their sorry asses. Inspired by Frey, these lost souls may believe that they, like their lavishly mutilated hero — the macho bastard who caught an open container of beer in Granville, Ohio, and went down hard — can muster the same testosterone-fueled willpower to beat the demon that drives weaker souls to stay strung and drunk.

To these nervous Nellies, I say wake up and smell the Zeitgeist. The Truth is so 20th Century. Which is why, for my money, the Dark Star of Denison College stands out as nothing less than the voice of a Generation: Generation W — after George Bush’s middle name, Wannabe. Which — if you could unwrap your mind from outdated binary concepts like authenticity or fraud, fiction or life — you would understand is not meant as a pejorative. Au contraire!

This is what the picky-picky crowd don’t get, folks. No. 1 seller Frey has transcended literature. He’s embraced the “non-reality based media” concept with as much vigor as the president’s own reality managers. Like the commander in chief, he has freed himself from the bondage of fact. Indeed, the parallels with George W. Bush are somehow heartening. Because no other author seems willing to step up and sign on with the truth that hunkers like the proverbial elephant in America’s living room: The truth that there is no truth.

And no, I am not saying that if Karl Rove could have created a literary phenom that served his purpose, he would not have done better. The president, after all, has long had a wavering relationship with the truth. He doesn’t need some puffed-up pill jockey — be he Frey or Limbaugh — to find parallels to his own proclivities.

 

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.

“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.

 

Indeed. When you check out the mug shot of his Ohio booking, you’d think you were looking at the head counselor at Camp Chugabrew. Which was my initial inkling that, falsehoods aside, the guy might really be a heavy. I’ve met a couple of killers in my life, and both were unassuming gentlemen. That’s what impressed me most. Here, clearly, was an early demonstration of the superhuman self-control the two-fisted son of an executive was already on his way to mastering. The arresting officer even remembers young James as “well-mannered.” He fooled everybody. Now that is impressive.

Your criminal types know how to con the heat. But in the end, and I know I’m running the risk of projecting my own neuroses onto the subject, there is one other machismo-diminishing characteristic on the table. One I happen to share with our future Poet Laureate — a persistent lisp.

There, I said it. Of course, cred-craving white boys aren’t the only ones plagued by sibilance — his lisp may well explain why Mike Tyson lost his shit and got into ear-biting. I’m sure as hell not going to ask him. We’re talking about common ground here. Your lispers have to climb twice as high up the Bad Boy ladder. Otherwise we’d get our collective clocks cleaned. (Just ask Al Gore. Beard or no beard, however buffed up his politics, the poor man has no shot at being president so long as his speech impediment makes him sound like a priss. Sad but true.)

But what the hell. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that, way back when, yours truly also plopped on Oprah to pimp his own narco-hayride of a memoir. Sadly, this was the Pleistocene Era, when the Book Club was still a twinkle in the hostess’ eye. Sadder still, I arrived in the Harpo Studios only to discover that it was a theme show: “When Smart People Do Dumb Things.” It still burns a little.

To the best of my recollection, among the other guests were a toupeed dumbass who called the police to retrieve his keys from an open convertible, then drove to Vegas and married his twin, plus a sheepish high school jock who scored the winning touchdown in his championship game — for the other side. (I may be dreaming the guest list — I left my memory in a bus station locker with my liver a decade ago, and lost the key.)

Instead of a life-changing book-club endorsement, my thrill was a private moment with the greatest talk-show human on the planet. During a commercial break, Ms. Winfrey leaned close enough for me to find out she smelled minty, then whispered, “I smoked crack and I loved it!” before the camera swung back in our faces.

I never got near any kind of mega-sales. But if I close my eyes, I can still see the look in Oprah’s eyes. And, in the nonstop, massively non-selling memoir written on the wall of my skull, she still smells minty.

But enough about me. It’s no picnic working a white privileged existence into a world of pain. On some level all writers want to control what their readers think of them. Self-invention is part of the gig. Though some authors you picture practicing scowls in the mirror as they type, some you don’t. Either way, the whole endeavor can morph into something closer to strategy than story. A kind of literature as self-promotion that’s pervaded the American pantheon as far back as Whitman — and to the Father of Our Country before that.

Oscar Wilde, no stranger to memoir — though he actually did hard time while writing his heartbreaking De Profundis— decried American art because of its tedious obsession with veracity. A tendency he traced to George Washington, with his stirring tale of chopping down a cherry tree, then declaring he couldn’t lie about it. The anecdote, Wilde noted, perfectly exemplifies the American psyche: all about honesty, and completely contrived.

Now, as then, we are a people grown fat on fabrication. The truth is just another artificial flavor, with JT and James just the latest in a long line of celebrity chefs.

Let’s everybody chow down!?

Jerry Stahl is the author of the narco memoir Permanent Midnight?. His latest novel, I, Fatty, was an L.A. Times best-seller.


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