My Friend Leonard
James Frey’s characters just laugh. They don’t laugh heartily or drunkenly. They don’t bust out laughing. They don’t demurely cover their mouths and giggle. If we learn anything in his books about how someone might laugh it is how the narrator–a young Mr. Frey–responds to it. Chances are he will either laugh too or think the laugher is a fucker for doing so.
If you’ve read Frey’s 2003 debut, the best-selling rehab memoir A Million Little Pieces, you’re already acquainted with his shtick. He has unshackled himself from what most of us understand to be the rules of sentence structure and grammar. He alternates terse broken sentences with loquacious run-ons, and scorns quotation marks, colons, semicolons, adverbs, parentheses, and adjectives–stylistic tics that surely have Strunk and White spinning in their graves.
In his follow-up, My Friend Leonard, Frey has made peace with the comma, albeit nervously. But given the amount of dialogue–not to mention Frey’s nonstop inner monologue, his penchant for conversing with a dead woman, and his complicated relationships with his truck, a grave, a bottle of wine, and his pit bull puppies–quotation marks would have been welcome too. Many readers will find themselves counting lines back up the page to review, after a long run of dialogue, whether the exchange begins with “I speak” or “he speaks.”
But for all its narrative silliness, Frey’s annoying and confusing manner serves him well. His logorrhea draws you in, keeping you close as Frey’s tumultuous new life unfolds. Which is what you’ll need to hang tight to a story almost too fantastic to believe.
My Friend Leonard picks up where his first book leaves off. A Million Little Pieces ends with Frey, newly sober, leaving the residential treatment center where he has spent the last few months. He wound up in rehab after a police chase and minor crime spree committed during a spectacular multiweek crack ‘n’ booze-induced blackout. My Friend Leonard opens with Frey doing time in county jail on his felony convictions, anxious and nearing his release, reading War and Peace to an illiterate inmate. The Leonard of the title is a character introduced in A Million Little Pieces as Frey’s surrogate father, a fellow patient and loving sponsor. Leonard–whom Frey has repeatedly insisted in interviews is for real–is also high up in the world of organized crime.
At the end of their stint in rehab, the childless Leonard “adopts” Frey, asking him to let him help however Frey needs. Leonard’s character is the soul of the new book. He’s a movie fantasy of a mafioso, a warmly benevolent godfather. A man with deep pockets, living by a fierce ride-or-die moral code, he’s above the law, using his ill-gotten gains to lavish his friends with good times (fine meals, expensive art, hookers). He feeds, bankrolls, and houses Frey when he’s at his most wounded and raw. Leonard shows up with groceries; he guides Frey, and loves him unconditionally; he swoops down and protects Frey from himself and, sometimes, other people. He gives Frey a job in his organization dropping off packages and not asking questions, a job that earns Frey vast sums of cash. In exchange, Leonard asks nothing, save for being allowed the privilege to provide for his “son” and show him a good life. The sort of savior anyone would dream of, Leonard is essentially Old Testament God in a white Mercedes.
If Leonard is God, Frey is the prodigal son. He starts off scraping by as a doorman at a Chicago nightclub. He’s an emotional zombie, an insomniac whose sleep is fraught with cocained dreams, terrified to be sober, biding his time having vapid conversations with girls in bars and meaningful ones with the ghost of his dead girlfriend. After hooking up with Leonard, however, his spirit brightens and he becomes hopeful. He begins to learn how to love life. He buys a Picasso with his mob money. He gets a girlfriend. He writes a few screenplays, and on a lark he moves to LA to get a straight job. Within a few chapters he’s optioned some movies and directed some others. He’s a regular guy with a house in a canyon, living with the woman of his dreams and making Leonard proud–a far cry from the macho incorrigible who arrived at rehab toothless and kicking.
The whole story seems preposterous, but somehow it works, right down to the emotionally gutting surprise ending. Frey limits his characters to himself, his dogs, Leonard, a girlfriend or two, and Leonard’s henchman. But in doing so he insures that the story stays on track. He keeps his readers in his pocket, a velvet-lined emotional space where all the dramatic power comes from the way he grapples with life like a thin-skinned newborn. It plays like a perpetual season-ending cliffhanger: will he succeed or fail? And, most of all, it plays to two powerful fantasies: That we can be unconditionally loved, provided for by a big daddy who is as fierce as his love for us and will exact cold vengeance on anyone who threatens us with harm. And that no matter our wretchedness and failings, no matter how grievous our suffering, we too can be redeemed.