The angel from the underworld
James Frey offers the story of 'My Friend Leonard'
By Todd Leopold
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- There are six tiny letters tattooed on James Frey's arm: S, P, C, D, H and C. They stand for "simplicity," "patience," "compassion," "discipline," "honesty" and "courage."
"Good words to be reminded of," says Frey, sitting in a break room for an interview at CNN Center.
Frey wants to be reminded of them. The author, 36, provided a graphic tale of addiction and recovery in his first book, "A Million Little Pieces," which famously opened with the then 23-year-old Frey awakening on a plane on his way to a treatment facility, with a hole in his cheek, several missing teeth and stinking of blood, urine and vomit.
But, he freely acknowledges, even when he left rehab there were no guarantees he would stay clean. He picks up the post-"Pieces" story in "My Friend Leonard" (Riverhead).
"Leonard" has an angel watching over Frey, the title character -- a polished man of undetermined means, engaged in some dubious business, who had befriended Frey in the treatment facility.
As the book opens, Frey needs him badly. A woman he had fallen in love with has committed suicide and he's at loose ends in Chicago, living in a dumpy apartment.
"I was really scared I would die," he recalls. "I still am. Sometimes it's just good luck, meeting the right person."
'I never judged him'
Leonard was an unlikely "right person." Though he never calls Leonard a gangster, Frey doesn't whitewash his story; Leonard was usually accompanied by a beefy guy nicknamed Snapper, and -- after Frey agreed to the arrangement -- put Frey to work making mysterious deliveries, directed by clipped, equally mysterious phone calls.
Leonard also had a tendency to drop in and out of town, and when he would take Frey out -- always addressing him with a paternal "My son" -- he did so at the most luxurious restaurants and hotels.
Frey, a slightly scruffy, intense man who speaks with a thoughtful compassion, talks about Leonard's lifestyle matter-of-factly. He was both fatherly and "Godfather"-ly, and that was that, he says.
"I never judged him. Within the subculture he existed in, he was completely within the rules," he says. "He was what he was. ... It was sometimes a little weird, because I know he was in that world. And I'd be lying if I didn't say it was sometimes cool."
Not pigeon-holing Leonard was part of the point in writing about him, he adds.
"[These guys] don't sit in smoky rooms plotting the next murder," he says. "They have lives. They're never one-dimensional." Leonard could be tough -- in a striking scene, Frey witnesses a hard glint in Leonard's eyes when challenged to a pointless bar fight -- but he was also a man of fine taste, impeccable manners and boundless generosity.
Indeed, Leonard's largesse sometimes extended to Frey's friends, who were invited along to long, indulgent dinners at fine restaurants and -- in one case -- to a glittery Super Bowl party.
"Those dinners ... I was recently with two girls I know in Chicago, and they were laughing about it," Frey says. "[The outings] were very vivid to them. They loved reading the book to have moments with him."
'If I'm not honest, people can see it'
Eventually, Frey got back on his feet. He moved to Los Angeles and became a writer, penning the screenplay to "Kissing a Fool." The calls from Leonard waned. Later, Frey decided to search him out, and the result taught him that his bonds with Leonard were as strong as ever.
"My Friend Leonard" is told in the same style as "A Million Little Pieces" -- an idiosyncratic, repetitive but always evocative spinning of words that approaches stream of consciousness. Frey says the process can have its difficulties.
"It's exceedingly delicate. I spend a lot of time making sure it flows," he says.
The books are also fearless. Frey isn't afraid to show himself in the worst possible light, with the toughest language he can muster. He writes about death, he writes about tears, he writes about wetting his pants when a crazed client points a gun at his head.
"I experienced my mortality, and while that makes you fear death, it also helps you not to fear it," he says. "Nothing can happen worse than what's already happened. ... An important part of what I'm trying to do is make the reader feel something greatly. If I'm not honest, people can see it.
"Only in the movies do you laugh when a gun is pulled on you," he adds. "It's scary as hell."
Which is not to say that "Leonard" -- or "Pieces" -- is relentlessly downbeat. There's a lot of humor in both works, and the ultimate message is uplifting.
Yet Frey doesn't see himself as a proselytizer. He's personally uncomfortable with many of the words and beliefs of 12-step programs and says, "I get nervous talking to crowds."
"Whatever I have to say is in that book ('Pieces')," he says. He will respond to letters and help when he can, but "part of the point is not to be obsessed with alcohol or drugs the rest of my life. ... I go to prisons more than I do treatment centers."
"Pieces" is now being made into a movie. "Leonard" is selling well. Frey has married, and he lives with his wife and young daughter in New York. He's planning another book, this one set in the movie business.
So yes, he's aware of his luck as well as his hard work. Those tattooed letters won't let him forget.
"I never thought I'd be 30," he says. "I never thought I'd be 28."
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