The most surprising things about the Smoking Gun’s savage, gleeful exposé of James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces were the photos the site had unearthed. One expected a hollow-eyed wraith with missing teeth, the kind of young person familiar from the million stories about crystal meth. Instead, we see a fresh-scrubbed teen idol of a fellow, a young man who looks like his mom may have just made him lunch. Frey, it turns out, was a garden-variety collegiate coke-snorter, a midwestern child of wealth about whom the most notable quality seems to be his ambition. At first, it’s hard to square his macho posturings (the famous tattoo signifying FUCK THE BULLSHIT, IT’S TIME TO THROW DOWN) with the baby face. But many an ambitious writer has had a cherubic aspect. Frey’s talk about being heir to Hemingway and Fitzgerald et al. is, if anything, more outlandish than the bogus journey through substance-abuse hell told in A Million Little Pieces. A week ago, Frey was the most famous writer in America. Now he’s in his loft in Soho, with its liquor cabinet (for his friends who still drink), his vast ambitions and bank account, and a pack of reporters camped outside. This is a story F. Scott Fitzgerald could have done something with. And his literary chest-thumping produced a truly glorious Schadenfreude smackdown—Frey threw up, and threw down, and cracked up. It’s the kind of crash that makes other writers very happy. Possibly, this will be his greatest contribution to American literature.
Frey’s rage, it now seems, was mostly a rage to succeed. It’s a physical thing, something Norman Mailer would have understood, the writer as pugilist. Frey wanted to crush the competition. And clearly, he wasn’t going to do it with his writing. It’s Neanderthal prose, the bluntest of instruments, pounding relentlessly. But if he couldn’t make himself the great American novelist, he could become the great American substance abuser (where there’s also plenty of competition).
And then Oprah looked down on the book, and saw that it was good. And though it seemed like the Smoking Gun had smote Frey a mighty blow, verily, Her voice gave him strength again. Frey’s story became a TV parable of therapy and forgiveness, where the love of Mom and Oprah triumph over whiskey and cocaine and any lingering predilection for literal truth. Larry King and Anderson Cooper, stunned and awed, could only bow down before Her supernatural power. “I’ll never write … about myself again,” said Frey. But who cares what the sins really were, as long as there’s redemption.