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A town he loves

Post-'Million Little Pieces' flap, James Frey roams L.A. -- his city of dreams.

May 20, 2008|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

James FREY was back in his old neighborhood, strolling happily along the Venice boardwalk, enjoying a sunny day in a T-shirt and aviator shades as he passed tattoo shops and a man who was selling what he claimed to be "philosophy." It doesn't get any better than this, Frey's body language seemed to say.

"This," Frey, 38, said. "This doesn't exist in New York. This weather -- it's like this in Venice all year. Never that hot here because of the ocean. I mean, dude, every day -- all year."

That's when he bumped into an old neighbor, who still lives across from the house where Frey wrote the 2003 book, "A Million Little Pieces."

"Jesus! I thought you won the Nobel Prize for literature!" shouted Marvin Klotz, a retired English professor, hanging out on a bench with some friends. He'd seen all the recent press. "Newsweek! Time! Vanity Fair!"

"Washington Post, I got a good one," said Frey, who talks through his nose with a bored-guy flatness.

Frey could have been just another local boy made good. Then Klotz, a dead ringer for Jerry Garcia and Albert Einstein, introduced the writer to another friend as "the disgraced James Frey!"

"The most notorious author in America," Frey offered, smiling his crooked smile.

They all cracked up, laughing in the seaside sun.

There was a time, not too long ago, when Frey's travails were no laughing matter. "A Million Little Pieces" became a critical hit and a huge bestseller. Bret Easton Ellis called it "a heartbreaking memoir defined by its youthful tone and poetic honesty"; Pat Conroy dubbed it "The 'War and Peace' of addiction."

Frey's fortunes soared even higher when Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club because of its story of "redemption." But the book, which recounted the writer's drunken and drugged teenage years and early 20s, and his recovery -- begins with an arresting image of its writer waking up on a plane, "My four front teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut" -- quickly developed problems. During the winter of 2006, key details of the book were exposed as made up, and Frey was thrown to the wolves, a group that soon included some of his former champions, who derided him as a fraud.

Those days, with Frey sitting on Winfrey's couch with beseeching eyes, pleading like a penitent, as she denounced his "lies" and "betrayal," seem now like a long time ago.

To Frey as well: Over the course of a few hours last week, Frey was neither defiant nor apologetic, and spent most of his time looking forward and discussing his new L.A.-set novel, "Bright Shiny Morning," a many-headed beast that sprawls like the city it chronicles.

"What if in this new book of James'," Frey's old professor friend, back on the boardwalk was speculating, "if everything in it was absolutely true?"

More smiles.


Small world

If Frey is torn up by guilt or confusion by his role in the largest literary scandal of the last decade, he's keeping it to himself. This may be partly because he is legally barred, because of a nondisclosure agreement with Random House that concluded a series of post-"Pieces" lawsuits, from discussing the book and its presentation to the public as a true story.

He can't discuss the way the five hours he once spent in police custody turned, in the book, into 87 days in jail, nor the fact that he was not part of a train crash he described that killed two girls, nor can he explain whether he really beat the life out of that priest, whom he wrote he met after nearly jumping into the Seine.

But L.A is a subject he's glad to focus on now. The city was a place where he was successful, free of addiction and where his life was relatively innocent. It was a state of grace between the early addiction and rehab years and the post-Oprah period. He was sad to leave, he said, when he and his wife headed to New York in 2002.

"Completely," he added as the SUV provided by his publisher cruised on the 10. "I mean, I met my wife here, I wrote my first book here, I bought my first house here, I lived here from 26 until I was 32, 33. Important years for me."

Frey moved to L.A. in 1995, after he finished the rehab described in "Pieces" and its similarly fact-challenged sequel, "My Friend Leonard."

He came here to become a screenwriter, living first on Crescent Heights, from which he often walked to the Laemmle Sunset 5, then Laurel Canyon, and then Venice.

Along the way, he worked for a number of studios, writing the David Schwimmer vehicle "Kissing a Fool" and directing the tiny "Sugar: The Fall of the West." Both movies bombed. But his screenwriting money allowed him to buy a Craftsman on a walking street in a housing economy still hung over from the '90s recession. (He has since written a script about the Hells Angels for director Tony Scott.)

Dealing with the movie industry did not drain him. "Hollywood's cool," Frey said. "It's a system. You have to remember that that's what it is. If you're expecting it to be art school you're in for a rude awakening."

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