James Frey rises from the ashes

Los Angeles 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.”

In Venice, Frey said, he volunteered as a Big Brother, got a slice almost every day at a pizza stand on the boardwalk, ate dinner four nights a week at James’ Beach cafe, hit L.A. Louver gallery. He surfed (poorly).

He also got to know the local homeless guys, some of whom appear in veiled form in “Bright Shiny Morning”: Last week he saw an old friend named Jack sleeping on a chair beside a dumpster, and he joked that Jack had been snoozing right there for the six years he’s been gone.

“Venice, rocked, man. I had a rule that I would never go east of Lincoln,” Frey said, “unless I was invited.”

Mixed reviews

Frey may be the only one of the recent literary-hoaxers to get an afterlife. Jayson Blair appears to be finished. Ditto Stephen Glass, who was a pretty good writer. Margaret Jones, the privileged suburban girl who pretended to be a South Central gang courier, will likely never be published again. J.T. LeRoy turned out not to have even existed.

But Frey’s new book is getting serious attention. In part this is likely from a sense many have that Frey was wronged by Winfrey and the publishing industry, that he became a scapegoat for the long history of “imaginative” and pumped-up memoirs.

The attention also surely comes from a sense that some people really like the novel; Frey is reported to have received a $1.5-million advance. Last week he read to an audience at the Whisky a Go Go with a metal band.

The novel has divided critics like no other major book this year. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin loved it; the Los Angeles Times’ David Ulin called it “One of the worst [books] I’ve ever read.” Time magazine’s Lev Grossman was himself divided: “The worst bits of ‘Morning’ are probably worse than anything else you’ll read this year, but Frey is such a relentlessly entertaining storyteller that you just won’t care.”

Most of the assessments of the book and its boulevard-of-broken-dreams view of L.A. agree that he’s trying to get at iconic elements of the city. Frey describes himself as looking for “places in L.A. that aren’t normally written about,” its archetypes.

But it’s only a short jump, after all, from archetype to stereotype.

“Frey has less fear of cliché, or sentimentality, or of stating the obvious, than almost any other writer I have ever read,” Grossman wrote. “He literally writes as if he personally discovered that show-biz people are fake, homeless people can have hearts of gold, love can bridge any divide and people go to L.A. to watch their dreams die.”

Said Frey: “I deliberately tried to write a book that wasn’t like any other book, with history mixed in with primary narratives and secondary narratives, with weird statistical or demographic stuff.”

It’s also a book without a center -- that’s intentional too.

“Because that’s how Los Angeles is: A fragmented, disconnected city with hundreds of little micro-neighborhoods. I mean, Bel-Air is radically different from Compton.”

And while some have compared the novel to the films of Robert Altman, he doesn’t use devices employed by Altman, or by Paul Haggis in “Crash,” of roping various characters and narrative lines together.

“That’s the point. They don’t overlap very much in L.A. How often does someone in Eagle Rock interact with someone from Playa del Rey ever? The thing about Altman and Haggis is that in their work there is this synchronicity, these perfect coincidences. But in my view that just doesn’t happen, so I felt like I was making a statement. L.A. is oddly the most diverse and the most segregated city in America.”

Frey’s favorite L.A. novels include books that capture a specific slice of the city: John Fante’s “Ask the Dust,” James Ellroy’s “My Dark Places,” Ellis’ “Less Than Zero,” Walter Mosley’s “Devil in a Blue Dress.”

“I wanted to write a book that included all their worlds,” he said. “And a lot more.”

Moving on

When asked about his experience with the scandal, he doesn’t exactly dodge but he doesn’t engage much either. He’s either a case of truly successful rehabilitation or the least reflective man alive. He clearly enjoys being a rebel, a rule breaker. He admits he’s made mistakes, but he’s “moved on, started over.”

“Frankly, I don’t even care,” he told Vanity Fair, about the scandal. “I don’t care, if somebody calls [‘Pieces’] a memoir, or a novel, or a fictionalized memoir, or what. I could care less what they call it.”

He will say something about how he’s changed, as his SUV hauls toward the Chateau Marmont, one of his favorite places in town and a location that, like much in his book, is either one of the city’s great icons or among its most familiar stereotypes. Or both.

“I’m definitely more humble, I’m definitely more contained, I’m definitely living a quieter life,” Frey said, popping one of many pieces of nicotine gum. “I’m just really grateful to have a book coming out. It’s similar to ‘A Million Little Pieces’ -- I was just so excited to have a book coming out. It’s awesome. I write about L.A. as the city of dreams, and this is another dream . . . .”