Thoughts of an Author in Training
I picked up this beauty at the mark down table in Woody’s News Stand naturally because of the cool title. Originally I thought it was going to be a collection of short essays, which lately have been my favorite. But the book was a total surprise. From the premise to the characters and the subliminal plot I couldn’t put this book down.
The novel begins with the narrator describing that every book he’s ever written he’s lost. This fact alone scars the crap out of me. I can’t imagine working for years on something only to lose it before it could go to print. That horror alone kept me reading, as we all know torturing the protagonist is a very important tool and this kind of torture seemed something I couldn’t resist.
The story outlines the tale of two unlikely friends, one an extreme outcast and estranged, the other utterly grumpy and overly sexual with men, but both have the strange commonality in being writers. They meet in College during a creative writing course, the best class and form a very competitive relationship. Each striving to out-write the other, yet there friendship is uncanny and true. The novel underlines great themes of identity, passion and antiestablishment. The characters break the rules of writing they learned as students to unveil a more realistic cut-throat writing as they try to make it big in NY. By betraying friends, girlfriends and the law, these two friends spend their whole lives chasing the perfect novel, that best-seller that will leave them on the map.
The quotes I noted in this novel felt so raw. The thoughts he implanted strategically throughout the novel, I really held on to and they caused for a creative free write afterwards.
“It is the only answer he gives the same each time, so I am sure it is a lie.”
“Students want you to tell them that everything they’ve learned thus far has been bullshit, served up steaming by people far stupider than themselves.”
“Somewhere, once, I read that the only mind a writer can’t see into is the mind of a better writer.”
My favorite quote was about friendship. Sounds cheesy, I know, but at a time when my writing has been so critical and the people who view it have been unbelievably opinionated I didn’t know what to say when my best friend tore apart work that I valued dearly. So when I read this line, I called her and thanked her even though it sucked to know that what I had written sucked.
“This was why we were friends. This was why I cleaned up the wonton soup bowls and recycled the vodka bottles. It wasn’t about having a trunk full of two-thousand-dollar cans of caviar and an apartment with a view of Union Square. It was about having someone who gave it to you straight when you wanted to be lied to.”
Based on the title and cover picture I was a little hesitant to open up this book. Lately in my devouring of literature friends have loaned me books of all kinds from Jack Kerouac to the Godfather. Most of the time they are great and this one was no different.
It starts off a little slow, meaning that the heart breaking and historical references don’t come in till chapter three or four. The entirety of the book is based on what was referred to as the Orphan Train. Running between 1854 and 1929 the train would transport children of the east coast to the rural Midwest. Like communism, in theory it’s great. They wanted to give an equal opportunity to all children to have a home and parents, but of course it rarely works out when mass projects are put in to practice. The children would be loaded on to trains and at different cities they were chosen for free by different families. The families were supposed to provide food, shelter, and education but most kids were uneducated, beaten, starved and sexually abused.
The fictional novel is based off very real and shocking facts about different orphans on the train. The author does a good job at bridging a generational gap threading two orphan stories, one from the ‘20s and one from the early 21st century in order to build up a caring relationship between an old grumpy widow named Vivian and a rebellious goth-girl named Molly.
There are very heavy tones of cultural injustice in this novel. Not just injustice towards being an orphan, but being an orphan and not American. Children were treated horribly different based on their nationality. During the flashback parts of the story you discover that being Irish, something very celebrated and embraced today, was a cruel fate in industrial America. During the present time-line of the novel we learn that the protagonist has a Native American background that’s scrutinized during a high school history course.
The characters struggle to understand their identities among shifting parent figures. Forced to take care of themselves and act accordingly against the law, the protagonists develop course feelings for any idea of motherhood which continues the vicious cycle. They question the foundations of love and growing up without it has made them hesitant to let anyone in to their lives. Thankfully the novel manages to pull off a happy wrapped up ending, so it’s worth a read. It might draw some tears but that’s always a sign of a good writer.
I got quite a bit of flack for reading this after it was exposed to be more fictional than non. Regardless I think the crafting of this story and the plot were truly entertaining and I read it quickly. I read it as non-fiction because it added more weight to the characters, but I wasn’t disappointed to find out that some of the facts were fabricated. I can imagine that he didn’t remember all of the details of rehab and he probably wanted to vamp it up a little bit considering he was such a success story the events might have been a little dry.
James Frey breaks the conventional grammar of dialogue and story-telling. He breaks up dialogue by line, as grammar instructs but he completely ignores the use of quotations. This is obviously intentional and his publisher must have agreed with his stylized choice. I think it makes the story flow better. I personally couldn’t do that, as it would drive me crazy, but the pages just seemed to turn themselves with the book being broken up more sharply. Paragraphs were short and used declarative sentences frequently to emphasize. Breaking up words with periods you read the statements of his pain differently. It was directly forcing me to pay attention and dissect each word. He would repeat and scramble different feelings about “the fury” and his different cravings for substances that allowed me to be apart of his streaming consciousness.
The book was painful and beautiful. I find books about addiction and struggle very fascinating because they discuss part of the human condition that robs so many people of their humanity. Especially in America where you can get a prescription for anything over the counter, we fall victim to the numb calling of addiction. Books like this discuss the tremendous difficulty in trying to recover from that fate, understanding life again as taking advantage of the moments you’re alive and sober. I understand that this book wasn’t entirely true but the problem remains the same and very much true. Addiction sucks and it’s not something to be cured, just controlled.
I enjoyed the love story, the friendships, and the attempts to mend things that could never be undone. I do think that the book could have sufficed being a little shorter as some of the pages felt repetitive and extremely out there. This could have been another stylized choice to emphasize the important ideas, but I found myself skipping over pages because they were exactly the same.
What I found most shocking was the build up and the destruction in the end. The entire book you grow to love the characters that James befriends. Like a tribe of adult misfits, too broken for society to accept they all form a table at meal time and you follow their ridiculous stories as well as James. As the book ends and James is released to head on to jail the very last page details what happened to all the people in rehab with James. The facts are short and to the point but brutal. He wastes no time in telling us about the destruction of each character. Out of 300 pages I thought this was the most brutal. One page details nine men victim to their disease who end up being murdered, robbed, imprisoned and plagued by their failure, when you so badly want them to prevail and live happily ever after.
Another James Frey novel, yet this time I was ready for the style discrepancies. The book picks up where A Million Little Pieces left off. We skip jail time and focus on the more important details of Fray’s crazy life. His love and rock from rehab Lilly is desperately struggling with the death of her grandmother, the only family she has. Lilly was a prostitute because her mother sold her for crack and naturally Lilly became addicted to the rock as well. Staying sober for close to a year, she did it for her grandmother and a taste of freedom. But the day Frey is released from jail, Lilly gives up and chooses death rather than grief.
It’s certainly a shitty way to start off a new life of sobriety and freedom. The book lags a little as we get to know more about Frey through his struggles with grief and temptation before we get to know Leonard. He’s a big figure in the world of gambling according to the book but the way he’s pulling in money and distributing power I wouldn’t doubt that in real life he deals with more intense means of business. Leonard cares about loyalty, respect, friendship and of course love. He adopts James as a son and by means of fatherhood he’s a pretty cool dad with class and good taste. Leonard weaves in and out of the book but with each appearance you can’t help but love him more.
His philosophies and mannerisms reflect the ideal and most loving parental figure but he never fails to show his level of importance as he keeps clear of authorities, always meets James with a body-guard at a secure location and has six different numbers and names that James can reach him out. We find out that Leonard started his business adventures because a friend of his was brutally shot and murdered right in his arms the day before Leonard was registered for rehab the first time. He used every ounce of being to start up an underground organization to get back at the gang who had robbed him of friendship. It turned in to a powerful mafia-like group that he used to move and make money. He attended rehab sometime later when the money and power weren’t enough. He couldn’t run form the pain anymore. In rehab he met James.
The relationship between the two staggers with Frey’s different life choices and where he stands with grief. Leonard’s the Gandalf of the story sweeping in to help when help is needed and with each appearance we see a little more humanity in the world of crime. Leonard’s a cross between Santa Claus and the Godfather and when he disappears at the end of the book I flipped the pages even more frivolously to find where he had gone.
As James visits the location of where he’s told Leonard will be after two years, we come upon a shriveling, weakened Leonard who’s dying of AIDS. Ashamed to expose himself as gay to his son, he traveled the world like he always wanted and expected when he returned to die alone and rejected from the tough world he built up. I couldn’t help but feel empathetic in the shame that the identity he built was not who he truly was and felt he could never expose the difference. I felt sad that he didn’t think he could even tell James. He obviously trusted and respected James enough to adopt him but he felt that this part of his life was for himself alone. Leonard spends the last week of his life with Frey, but stands firm in the idea that he wants to go out on his own terms not the diseases. Frey has to stand by while another member of his life takes their own life, both trying to live by their own sense of freedom.
“Even a second of freedom is worth more than a life time of bondage.”