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Book Review: My Friend Leonard

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It takes a bit to get used to James Frey’s memoirs, both typographically and stylistically. None of the paragraphs are indented. Quotation marks are not used to delineate speech or conversation. Stylistically, Frey would probably flunk most basic composition classes. Many of his sentences are basically run-on streams of consciousness. For example: “I sit for as long as I can I sit until everything hurts I sit until everything stops hurting I sit until I lose myself in the gray wall I sit until my mind becomes as blank as the gray wall.”

But this all adds together for some truly great stuff, stuff that ultimately lets you see things through his eyes and his thought processes.

Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was one of the best books of 2003. It was the story of his time in a rehab facility battling the alcoholism and drug addiction that threatened to kill him before age 24. My Friend Leonard is a follow-up to that work. Leonard is an older gentleman with seeming organized crime connections (or as Leonard puts it, he is “the West Coast Director for a large Italian finance firm”) with whom Frey became friends in rehab. Leonard, unmarried and childless, has informally adopted Frey as his son.

The book opens with Frey serving jail time to clear up charges pending against him while he was in rehab and looking forward to his release so he can be together Lilly, the woman he fell in love with in rehab. Leonard is one of the centerpieces as Frey tells the story of Lilly, Frey’s life in the years following his release from the rehab center and jail, and the struggles he encounters not only as a recovering alcoholic and addict but with life in general.

Stylistically, My Friend Leonard is much like A Million Little Pieces, although it may not rise to quite the same level of quality in terms of content. That may be because these memoirs are populated with characters, and perhaps the people Frey met in everyday life after being released from jail aren’t quite as colorful as those who populate rehab centers, nor do they struggle with quite as many demons as Frey’s rehab compatriots. You also have to wonder whether Frey indulges in a little bit of literary license with his life. For example, the end of the book is somewhat hard to believe, and a variety of episodes make you wonder if the event actually happened or if Frey is indulging in some “creative nonfiction” to embellish somewhat more mundane occurrences.

That said, I read the book in the course of one day. Frey truly does take you inside his thought processes. As a result, he not only keeps you interested, he allows you to laugh and cry with him. As such, My Friend Leonard is a worthy companion to A Million Little Pieces. If you’ve read the first memoir, you will like this one. If you’ve read neither, pick them both up and prepare for a enjoyable and at times gut-wrenching ride through Frey’s life.
Edited: PC

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.
  • DrPat

    Your quote from Frey sounds in my head like the drug-chant used by the Mentats in the first movie version of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Stream-of-consciousness is a tough act to pull off – the line between it and simple poor writing is hair-thin.

    So I guess the question I have for you is (not “Do you feel lucky, puck?”, although that might also be appropos, but) why do you want to see things through the eyes and thought-processes of a drunk and drug addict?

    Otherwise, great review, Tim!

  • Tim Gebhart

    Because the memoirs are not about his time as a drunk and drug addict but his struggles to no longer be one.

  • Nick Jones

    …”why do you want to see things through the eyes and thought-processes of a drunk and drug addict?”

    So you can look into that Nietzschean abyss without looking into you; they have done the work so you don’t have to. Else, why Burroughs, and Bukowski, and Celine, and Antonin Artaud, and Genet, and other madmen, drunks, addicts, pimps, whores, and thieves?

  • m-

    both of these book are much, much more than memoirs from a drunk and a drug addict. once you read them…you’ll understand the depths of the human condition. i’m ready to read more.

  • lindsey

    I thought both books were well written and i was completely absorbed..two of my favorite books of all time -especially the way the dentist chapter in AMLP made me squirm and appreciate Frey’s courage (as well as novicane.)

  • Randi

    James Frey’s abuse problems started when he was 5 years old. His mother now wonders if the cause was a painful infection that went untreated for two years when he was a toddler (the pediatrian ignored it – said all babies cry a lot).

    It should make readers ponder the implications of that. How do you call a small child a “drunk.”

    Substance abuse treatment might be more successful if more science was involved rather than snide comments about personal character.

  • krys

    Just finished my friend Leonard. Read AMLP about a month ago and recently discovered that I had a little of drinking problem myself. Seven months ago I had a blackout and woke up not knowing where 6 hours of my life had went. Luckily I have amazing friends that took care of me and took me home. But a few months later a similar thing happened. In NYC at an open bar, had to much to drink ended up roaming the streets looking for my friends apt with a guy I would like to call “the best samaritan”…He put me in a cab, I woke up at the SI ferry somehow I got home. Anyway this blog shouldn’t encase all of my drunken antics but James Frey could not have put the process in better words. His use of an almost plain descriptive language, short phrases really sucked me in and helped me to express what I’m going through right now. It is a beast that wants to control you and destroy. Frey being 24 when he went through his rehabilitation process inspired me to act now (i’m 23) Cheers to soda on the rocks…God bless Leonard for seeing something in this person important and special enough to be his crutch long enough for him to survive…

  • Leanne

    Right on target review, Tim. AMLP was the first book I have read (and I’m 45 and an avid reader)where I physically felt the author’s pain. There were times I would take my glasses off, bow my head, and just breathe- grateful for the breath.

  • audra

    Iam currently reading a million little pieces. This is a wonderful book and shares so much for people who are alcoholics and drug addicts. I am in recovery and Iam an alcoholic and an addict. It is nice to no that there are people in this world that have shared the same exsperiences as I have and I am not alone. Thank you for sharing your life and you hope.

  • Jan

    Once I picked up the book I found it difficult to stop reading. Although there is more profanity than I care to see, it is easy to follow and extremely moving. I would highly recommend this book.

  • Erinn

    I just finished reading AMLP and was completely blown away. His writing was not complex I agree, however it was extremely easy to follow and it helped me to feel what he was going through.
    I am now ready My Friend Leonard, It is extremely moving and I was in tears during a few pages, not many authors (or books I have read) have evoked that emotion in me by simply reading the text. I hear James Frey has just written the screenplay for AMLP- looking forward to seeing that

  • Jacquie

    i enjoyed reading thsi book it actually made me realize what a close friend of mine had been facing and what he was goin through, its a dificult book to read very emotional atleast for myself but id recommend it to anyone… to understand the book is difficult if uve never been in the situation but if uve known someone and have learned from that person u will never truely say “ive been there before” but u can say after reading the book there is hope and give someone some inspiration… if i could reach out to a special friend of mine i would i just hope that he knows in his heart i love him, and this book was an eye opener…

  • Angela

    I would highly recommend reading both of these books. Both were hard to put down. very interesting. Working @ a Detox Center, We hear a lot of similar stories, and meet so many great people. I have left both books @ the facility for anyone who would enjoy them