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Every bit as lovely as AMLP; Frey is a truly talented author!
on July 17, 2013
Having now read three of James Frey's four published works (not counting that weird pseudonym-series about the X-Men kids or whatever they are), I have come to consider myself a solidified fan. I care not what he made up or exaggerated in the controversial best-seller A Million Little Pieces, because that's still a damn good book, and his talent for minimalist prose is hard to ignore. My Friend Leonard is a `kind-of' follow-up novel, picking up shortly after where A Million Little Pieces left off to find James Frey writing in the first person about a somewhat-fictionalized version of himself.
It begins with Frey in jail for a brief period following his completion of drug and alcohol rehab, then getting out of jail and receiving some horrific news (this news is actually revealed in the epilogue of AMLP, but further detail is given in this narrative). In the aftermath of an event that severely rattles James's recently-free-from-jail existence, he comes dangerously close to undoing everything he accomplished in rehab by dealing with extreme temptation to drink again (which would inevitably lead to harder substances). This battle with the harsh echoes of Frey's past addiction are prominent in the first half of the story, and he even keeps a sealed bottle of cheap wine with him at all times as a reminder to not drink; a defiant expression of great willpower to refuse alcohol, even though it is available to him every moment.
Before long, Leonard is introduced: a charming, handsome, mysteriously wealthy fifty-something whom James had met and befriended while they were in rehab together. Leonard seeks Frey out and expresses a desire to `adopt' him in a way; to look out for James and care for him in a father-like relationship. Mind you, Frey is jobless and completely broke upon leaving jail, meanwhile fighting grief and teetering on the edge of falling back into addiction. Leonard has a particular fondness for James, as well as the means to provide for him, so their relationship is taken to a new level which changes James's life in some big ways. Leonard even takes to calling James `My son' for the remainder of the book, and while Frey finds this somewhat silly and strange, he is thankful to have such a generous friend in a dark time.
James makes his way through several ultra low-end jobs, including one as a bouncer at a dive bar. Eventually he is offered a position by Leonard, a position that is very loose and undefined, even a bit shady. James earns a great deal of money by running `errands' for Leonard, though he spends very little of it and does not count his wealth as much.
This description so far probably sounds very simple and rather uninteresting. The narrative is simple, but not in a boring or pointless way. It is, at the heart, the story of a man unfolding and coming to a place where he is finally taking care of himself, growing up, and finding joy in places other than self-destruction. This comes through great pain and loss, but the redemptive quality is thus all the more sweet. This is also the story of a deep and sacred friendship, one that mirrors the best father/son scenario one could imagine.
James Frey's writing is loose and minimalist in the sense that he intentionally excludes most punctuation, save periods and commas, and also utilizes multiple run-on sentences. While these two qualities may sound like simply the bad habits of a lazy writer, they are executed so well that it ends up giving the piece a very stark, human-thought-process sort of realism. When things get intense or very sad and the character smashes four or five sentences into one mad dash, the severity of the moment is felt because that's the way our minds tend to blur everything together under stress. At other points his dialogue is defined by beautiful, subtle honesty, and it is through the conversations in the book (including the ones going on in James's head) that really bring out the true attributes of each character.
My Friend Leonard was an easy read and a poetic delight. The story is plain in subject, but rich in character, delicate observation, and authentic interactions. Like everything I've read from Frey, there is great humor in this story, as well as loss and sadness that are gripping around your heart to rip it violently out of your chest. Again, this is how life is, is it not?
If you've not read A Million Little Pieces, I would recommend being introduced to Frey's work that way, though it is not necessary material to enjoy My Friend Leonard as a stand-alone. Either way, I would highly recommend any and all of his books to any reader with an appreciation for real people going through real circumstances interlaced with lovely prose and keen observation.