A number of years back a friend and I stood outside of Madison Square Garden waiting for others before a college basketball game. We were sipping beers concealed with a wink and a nod inside paper bags. I thought that made it legal. I thought wrong. We were issued summonses by plain clothes officers of the NYPD. This was back in Giuliani's heyday, cleaning up the city of "quality of life crimes". One of the cops said "Hey its no big deal - mail in the fine and you're done." Not exactly.
My pal and I both had to appear in Criminal Court to make our plea. In court you weren't allowed to talk, read or sleep. So I sat and stewed for hours as the folks there for drug crimes had their cases dismissed due to a court backlog - the unintended effect of the Mayor's crusade against the drunk, homeless, loud and smelly. When my name was finally called the court appointed lawyer recommended a guilty plea which I entered and paid my fine. Trying to laugh it all off, my friend and I vowed to tour local schools giving "scared straight" speeches about our lives as a con. We topped each other with our retellings of our crime and subsequent punishment. I never made any such speeches to kids but I probably should have written a book about it.
This week James Frey has been all over the news and internet after "The Smoking Gun" web site released a report on his supposedly exaggerated book "A Million Little Pieces". I have not read the book and am less likely now in light of the allegations. Apparently many others disagree with me and the book continues to fly off shelves . It has had no problem doing so especially after Oprah made it the first "nonfiction" selection to her Book Club. The author appeared on Oprah with his parents and detailed stories from the book and surely all the studio audience empathized, cried and then cheered as they were all given a free copy.
Now we are all prone to exaggeration. Who hasn't embellished a story of drunkenness, sexual conquests or conflicts solved with fists? In the company of a really good storyteller how can one not stretch the truth when its their turn to be in the spotlight? When one is at the bar or around a dinner table, this creative license is implied if not expected. But how does one go from that to putting those stories down on the printed page as a nonfiction memoir?
The Smoking Gun investigation into Frey's book now calls into question everything in it. Significant plot points appear to have been, at best, greatly exaggerated and, at worst, made up. His arrest and subsequent lengthy incarceration for hitting a police officer with his car and then resisting arrest in an crack-fueled rage was found to be significantly embellished. Apparently the arresting officer saw Frey's car in a no-parking zone, stopped him and saw a half-filled PBR bottle on the front seat. Frey was taken downtown and booked on a few misdemeanors and released in a few hours. The police report noted Frey was "polite and cooperative".
The Smoking Gun also says Frey "invented a role for himself in a deadly train accident that cost the lives of two female high school students (and) remarkably appropriates and manipulates details of the incident so he can falsely portray himself as the tragedy's third victim." How creepy!
Frey's lies are all the more despicable in that his book has been used by many to offer encouragement to those with substance abuse problems or to serve as a cautionary tale to teenagers. "A Million Little Pieces" details Frey's rejection of the "twelve-step" program used by many recovery and rehab clinics and groups. It is likely, then, that he has influenced fellow addicts to do the same. The other night appearing on Larry King Live, Frey called the book "a selective recollection of my life", a phrase that, if printed on the cover of the book would not inspire confidence in its writer.
Years ago, I was reading the "hot" book of the day, "Sleepers," which was later made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro and Brad Pitt. It was the memoir of Lorenzo Carcaterra in which he detailed harrowing stories of his life in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. Major parts of the story involving a revenge murder where found to be entirely made up.
In the world of journalism, Jayson Blair was responsible for the largest blight in the history of The New York Times after it was discovered he plagiarized articles and faked quotes and interviews. The excellent movie "Shattered Glass" tells the story of New Republic writer Stephen Glass who made up people, events and stories that got past fact checkers and were published as the truth.
In the current environment of 24 hour news and the internet no one has the time or inclination for small details like the verification of facts. Perhaps publishers and editors are worried they might miss the scoop if they delay.
The real cautionary tale here is not one of alcohol and drug recovery and addiction, as Frey's book intends. The real life stories of the writers named Blair, Glass, Carcaterra, and now Frey offer up another lesson to would-be journalists and nonfiction authors - don't screw with the truth. Sounds simple, right?
I'm sure it will happen again and after a while there might be enough occurrences to warrant a new section in book stores, libraries and amazon.com - "fish tales".
I've always been primarily a reader of fiction when it comes to books. I get my nonfiction (I hope) fix from newspapers, cable news and magazines. One notable exception are the gorgeous books by Frank McCourt, especially his first, "Angela's Ashes" a book that had a profound effect on me and countless others. Then again....
has the Smoking Gun verified if Frank McCourt is really Irish?