October 2005

Ryan Klos

nonfiction

My Friend Leonard by James Frey

Pain is not new to James Frey. His first book, A Million Little Pieces, defined pain by way of oral surgery without anesthetic and gut-twisting abdominal battles due to withdrawal and detoxification. My Friend Leonard picks up where Million left off. It is Frey’s attempt at putting the million pieces back together for a shot at normal life, something he can’t remember ever having. The pain still exists, but it’s different now. Instead of physical suffering, James starts feeling emotions we take for granted, and he’s not sure what to do with them. Add the fact that he’s a recovering alcoholic and drug-addict with a criminal record, and you wonder how this guy makes it past chapter one.

But he does. After serving a short jail term for crimes committed before rehab, James returns to Chicago for love and a new, unpolluted life. When he arrives, he hardly has time to realize the magnitude of freedom before life puts its weight on him.

Overwhelmed and scared his old rage will consume him, James calls his friend Leonard. Leonard is an Italian mob boss James met in rehab who, upon graduation, told him, “I would like you to be my son.” The mobster overtones don’t go unnoticed but Leonard’s intentions are sincere. Now, in father-son style, Leonard comes to James’s aid, feeds him and gives him a wad of cash to get him on his feet.

Their friendship grows into a surprisingly healthy father-son relationship, and whenever Leonard is in town, they get together for extravagant dinner parties and celebrations of clean living. James reaps the benefits of being part of a connected family while Leonard enjoys family in its more traditional meaning.

Then Leonard tells James he needs to disappear for a little while. James doesn’t question him, but when a little while becomes a long while, we figure the worst has come of Leonard’s mob ties. Leonard eventually makes contact, but something’s different since the hiatus.

My Friend Leonard delves more deeply into Frey’s psyche than A Million Little Pieces and while the pain is just as wrenching and raw in his second book, it’s more cerebral. Leonard focuses on feelings and less on the destructive, conflicted life of an addict. For each small victory James wins, you can’t help but cheer him on. You want to realize his dreams with him, and you hurt when he hurts, like when he has to put his pitbull to sleep:

The vet tells me it will be painless, that I can be with him. We walk into an operating room Cassius jumps up on a steel table. The vet prepares the needle. I hold Cassius and I tell him over and over that I love him and that I’m sorry and I’ll miss him and he kisses me, kisses me, kisses me, he tries to make me feel better he has no idea. The vet inserts the needle, depresses the plunger. Cassius yelps like a little puppy, my big tough pitbull feels the sting, I hold him as his blood courses through his veins I hold him as he stumbles, as he falls, I hold him as he dies. I look into his eyes and I tell him I love him and I’ll miss him and I’m so so so sorry. He dies in my arms and I hold him and I cry, I cry, I cry.

Frey’s style still has that stream of consciousness feel but it’s less wandering than the likes of, say, Jack Kerouac. He still neglects proper punctuation, quotation marks and paragraph indents, but it works, and it’s more refined than in Million. He gives us the good story bits and little else. As a result, the reading is fast and the story flows. For example, this is how he explains the job Leonard gave him:

I take a car to St. Louis. I don’t know what’s in the car, if there’s anything in the car. Nobody tells me and I don’t ask. I drive three miles over the speed limit. I leave the car in a shopping mall parking lot.

I move briefcases from the north side of Chicago to the south side of Chicago. I move briefcases from the south side to the north side. I ride the El train back and forth. I buy a set of nice clothing khakis black leather shoes a white oxford a blue sport coat, so that I look like a young ambitious commuter, so that people think I’m a law student or an apprentice all of which, in a certain ridiculous way, I am.

It’s concise, to the point, almost robotic. But it’s this tight construction that keeps the story moving and passes insignificant time quickly. We’re not reading a chronology, we’re reading a story, and Frey is aware of that from the start. He sticks to what’s important and pushes the story forward, always forward.

Frey’s story telling and writing style are cold water on a hot day. And within the saturated memoir market, the distinctive flavor of his prose makes his contributions much more palatable than a simple, self-absorbed history. This book feels different, and whether you see it in his story or his style, you can’t help but share the triumph in Frey’s newfound life, devoid of addiction.

My Friend Leonard by James Frey
Riverhead Books
ISBN 1573223158
368 pages