'The Fry Chronicles' review: Stephen Fry autobiography

"The Fry Chronicles -- An Autobiography"

Stephen Fry

The Overlook Press: 438 pp, $29.95

Actor, writer and British humor icon Stephen Fry would like you to know that he picks his nose and pees in the shower. He also can't stand the sight of his naked body. And in case you were wondering, he's a rotten dancer, a spaz on the athletic field and none too confident in the sack either.

It takes a mighty big ego to flaunt these sorts of imperfections, and that's the paradox that makes "The Fry Chronicles" such a chatty delight. The book, written by one of Twitter's Pied Pipers, is like an all-night telephone conversation with a garrulous old chum who leaves you basking in his self-deprecating wit even as you suffer the next day with a bad case of cauliflower ear.

Fry picks up his personal story where he left off in "Moab is My Washpot," the memoir of his childhood and adolescence. Here he looks back at his college years at Cambridge University, where he was best mates with Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson, and recounts (a tad too encyclopedically, it must be said) his rise as a British TV comedy star and tweedy Renaissance man.

The book is capriciously organized around the letter "c," starting with C12 H22 O11, the chemical formula for sugar, one of his early addictions. There will be other vices more hazardous to his health also starting with "c", but those relatively innocuous glucose goodies that turned him into a lawless bandit provide a nice introduction to the insatiable character he takes such pleasure in publicly flogging.

"Regularly canned, always in trouble, never stable, never settled in or secure, I left prep school a sugar addict, thief, fantasist and liar," Fry writes as a kind of warm-up to the unsparing self-appraisal that is perhaps the price he feels obliged to pay for the compulsive chronicling neither he nor his legion of devoted admirers can get enough of.

Cigarettes, the next "c" on his list, replaces Sugar Puffs and Bazooka bubblegum, and it is in this chapter that we get a brief recap of his criminal past. Fry, who was perfectly cast as Oscar Wilde on screen, acknowledges in Wildean fashion that he lacks "the ability to resist temptation or to defer pleasure for a single second." What landed him in the clink when he should have been preparing for his university exams was the use of someone else's credit cards to finance a decadent spree at the American Bar at the Ritz Hotel. (Even as a middle class teen, he felt it was his prerogative to live large.)

This experience of incarceration, which Fry describes as the low point of a rather tumultuous and sometimes suicidal adolescence, had a way of concentrating his mind. He returned to school with renewed purpose, achieved sterling grades and won a scholarship to read English at Queen's College, Cambridge.

Fry assumed he'd end up as a literature professor, but he fell in with a performing lot straightway, and made his mark in sketch comedy, partnering with Laurie, to whom he was fatefully introduced by Thompson, in the storied Cambridge troupe Footlights. (Laurie and Fry would go on to become a renowned British comedy duo, producing hits for the BBC including the popular series "A Bit of Fry and Laurie.")

At Cambridge, studying took a back seat to performing. And how could it not with so many future luminaries to inspire him? His prose turns gaga at the mere mention of Thompson, who seemed to him marked for Oscar winning stardom from the start. Laurie's triumph in the American TV series "House" is only fitting in his book, long has he known the full extent of his buddy's range. And acting on the same student stage with the precociously brilliant Simon Russell Beale in Ben Jonson's "Volpone" offered an early master class in scene-stealing comic mischief.

"A real education," Fry writes, takes place, not in the lecture hall or library, but in the rooms of friends, with earnest frolic and happy disputation."

A character in Julian Barnes' 2011 Booker Prize-winning novel "The Sense of an Ending"—a Cambridge man, as it happens—remarks that he hates "the way the English have of not being serious about being serious." There's a touch of that to Fry, who for all his gadabout insouciance was crushed that he didn't earn a first class honors degree.

But then Fry is better at pointing out the contradictions in his character than anyone else. Chief among these is the discrepancy between his unflappable public-school English manner and his jangling sense of himself as a "Jewish mongrel with an addictive self-destructive streak." A gay man who infamously outed himself as a celibate during his long sexless period, Fry, like Wilde, is a consummate inside-outsider—a societal position unmatched for comic surveillance.

Nonetheless, his native insecurity, compounded by a form of bipolar disorder, which he briefly mentions but appears to be saving for a later chronicle, has created quite a bit of havoc in his life. He admits to being a workaholic, fills us in on the extent of his compulsive spending (computer gadgetry is a particular weakness) and concludes this memoir just as he's starting up a love affair with cocaine.

Fry may see Alan Bennett as an idealized version of himself, but his own success is impossible to deny. "I seemed to be in almost limitless demand," he writes of his opportunities as a freelance magazine scribe. He could just as easily be talking about his television career or his work as a play doctor (the hit 1980s revival of the stage musical "Me and My Girl" owed a great deal to his revamping of the original book).

Good fortune this prolific can't be chalked up to luck. Along with his many talents—so numerous that he hasn't perhaps had the will or wherewithal to focus exclusively on any single one in a way that would leave an indelible mark—he has a rare genius for friendship. The warmth with which he speaks of Laurie and Thompson gives you a sense of why audiences across the board have found him so companionable. He does natter on about himself in an loosely edited flow, but more genial company would be hard to find.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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