Saturday, January 14, 2006

'A Memoir Full of Feces' and a real switcheroo

"I am an Alcoholic and I am a drug Addict and I am a Criminal"

- James Frey, A Million Little Pieces

It would seem, according to a painstaking investigation by the Smoking Gun, that James Frey is also a massive liar, having concoted major portions of his "memoir," A Million Little Pieces.

What started out as TSG's search for Frey's mugshot - to go along with many other celebrities' - turned into a damning expose. And Frey has had to cop to embellishing the truth... though he stands by the truth of the book, even if there isn't a whole lot in there.

Right around the same time, someone else's house of cards came tumbling down. It seems that JT Leroy, author of Sarah, is actually not a twenty-someting, HiV+ man who used to be a teenage truckstop hustler, but rather a complete fabrication created by the couple who supposedly took him in. All public appearances have been courtesy of his adoptive mother's sister-in-law, wearing a wig and dark sunglasses.

If true, both of these lies are reprehensible. These authors have sold ersatz personal tragedy to the masses and reaped the reward of cash and fame for things they just haven't done, and experiences they never went through. The books would have been fine if they'd just been works of fiction, but by calling them "memoirs" - or intimating that they based on the life of someone who never existed, in the case of "the Novel," "Sarah" - we do great injustice to the idea of what a memoir is supposed to be.

Then again, memoirs are always something of a dodgy business. How much of what Casanova or the Marquis de Sade wrote about their lives can be verified in any way, shape or form? And what about Papa Hemmingway? The very act of autobiography is always fraught with hubris, victimized by changing memories and subject to the twin temptations of grandstanding and - lets not beat around the bush, here - making shit up.

Yet, oddly enough, I find what Frey did to be terrible, and what "Leroy" did to be kind of funny in a sick sort of way.

Why? I think it's because, by and large, I find Leroy's whole shtick - with its peek-a-boo tale of underage transgender prostitution, and cloak-and-dagger angle - to be more of a hoax. And I love hoaxes: Joey Skaggs is one of my personal heroes, even if I can hardly remember his name when pressed, and anyone who gets a good prank out and makes people think has done good in my eyes.

I cannot abide outright fraud, on the other hand. And from where I'm sitting, Frey's work has fraud writ large across it.

That said, I'm not really sure where the line can be drawn. Both sets of folks were clearly in it for the money. Both of them had multiple chances to say "ha! fooled you" and run away. And both of them have had the opportunity to fess up once the jig was up, and have tried to excuse it, instead.

(Then again, it's still early - "Leroy" may yet come clean, or be exonerated.)

Maybe it's more to do with the fact that Frey scammed Oprah, whose Book Club has become a hideous juggernaut of literary complacency. Millions of people who otherwise wouldn't deign to set foot in a library or bookstore can go read Oprah's books and feel good about themselves, instead of asking why they sit on the couch and be absorbed by the Spectacle. And a redemptive story of a white guy on drugs who pulls himself up by his bootstraps when the big system just knocks him down and chews him up instead of helping him out - a conservative message if there ever was one - is par for the course, there.

"Leroy," on the other hand, pulled the coup of getting that exact same audience to care about the sort of person they might otherwise have had no sympathy for whatsoever: a "switcher" - a teen hustler in drag who catered to homo truck-driving men. Sure, when they're a kid, you feel sorry for them, but when they're grown up, still gay and have AIDS... how many Oprah fans would really want to befriend such a person?

They would if they could read their tearjerking "memoir" - which is called "a novel," anyway - and that's the lesson of "Leroy." "A Million Little Pieces," on the other hand, just tells us what we already "know" - any white junkie can kick the habit (even if he never really kicks it) with a lot of toughness and grit.

That's what Frey's novel was about, apparently. The 17 publishers who turned it down did so because they'd heard it all before. Then someone at the 18th hole in the golf course said "say it's all true, Jimbo," and he did.

I'd say "that'll learn him," but the real lesson here is for us.


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