My Friend Leonard
by James Frey
(Riverhead: New York)
Readers of James Frey's best-selling addiction recovery memoir, A Million Little Pieces, will be relieved to hear that James still is sober and that, finally, we get to know more about his friend Leonard. The author, a man in his 20s at the time of the first book, and the mobster, a flamboyant single guy with a mystery job, met in a treatment facility where James was drying out and Leonard was addressing his cocaine problem.
Now, with My Friend Leonard, Frey has created a post-treatment sequel that chronicles his unusual friendship with the man who calls him "my son."
Frey uses his characteristic rapid-fire prose -- devoid of certain punctuation, brutally direct and eminently readable -- in this second memoir. It opens with the author leaving jail for Chicago, where he hopes to reunite with Lilly, the girl he loves, who also is a recovering addict. But when he arrives in the city, he discovers that Lilly has committed suicide, leaving him alone and emotionally unstable on strange, dangerous streets.
Enter Leonard in a Mercedes limousine, accompanied by his sidekick, Snapper. He hands James a wad of money, sets him up in an apartment, takes him out for steak dinners and gives him a job. Grateful, James begins delivering parcels around the Midwest until finally he finds himself at the wrong end of a gun, stuck against his head by an angry recipient. End of job.
Leonard reappears at key points, shepherding James through his grief over Lilly, his terror over living without the crutches of alcohol and drugs, and his larger terror of relapsing. Fear is what Frey writes best -- gut- wrenching, nail-biting, bone-rattling, sleep-deprived fear.
As the book draws to a close, the author has matured and his friendship with Leonard has altered. At a critical point, James becomes Leonard's helpmate, reciprocating the many gifts he has received from this strange surrogate father. A final scene involving James, Snapper and a golf cart resolves the book with bittersweet affection and respect, leaving the reader more than satisfied.
Frey is a stylist of the first order who riveted readers with the brutality of A Million Little Pieces. With My Friend Leonard, he adds affection, humility and humor to the mix, enriching both the story and the language.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
The Dog of the Marriage
by Amy Hempel
(Scribner: New York)
"Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware," Kipling wrote, "of giving your heart to a dog to tear." Pessimistic as it sounds, he had a point. Just ask a dog owner taping "Missing" notices to a lamppost.
But if you think pets tempt the worst kind of heartbreak, you obviously haven't been married yet -- at least not in the way Amy Hempel's soulfully damaged cast are (or have been) in The Dog of the Marriage . From the woman who watches her neighbor betray his wife in "Beach Town" to the narrator of "Jesus Is Waiting," Hempel's characters have been jilted and hung out to dry -- by others, and by their own hearts as well.
But rather than stay home and listen to "I'll Be Your Mirror" on repeat, Hempel's characters take action. The narrator of the elegant title piece adopts a stray dog. In "The Afterlife," a woman referees her father's courting process, sensing he'll find it impossible to replace his late wife.
This engagement through watching over people and pets runs throughout The Dog of the Marriage. Hempel's characters want to be known, but admit that's impossible. "The way people flatter you by wanting to know every last thing about you," says one woman bitterly, "it isn't a compliment, it is just efficient, a person getting more quickly to the end of you." Perhaps, in the end, a dog isn't such a bad thing after all.
-- John Freeman
Jonny Too Bad
by John Dufresne
(W.W. Norton & Co.: New York)
"Sometimes you tell a story for its own sake," wrote John Dufresne in his 1994 novel Louisiana Power & Light. "Keep it alive so it will grow, mature ... perhaps even wander onto some fundamental truth."
In the past decade Dufresne took this statement to heart, spinning tall tales so fast and so well that yarn-spinning itself became his shadow topic and muse. Not surprisingly, storytelling also is front and center in his latest book, Jonny Too Bad, a collection of linked short stories that begins with the writer sitting on his porch watching some stray kids pet his dog Spot.
After taking them in, feeding them and then sending them on their way, "John" becomes unsure whether the kids were real or imagined. So do we. Playing this kind of magic trick before the readers' eyes is risky business, but Dufresne, a born storyteller, succeeds.
A teacher of writing, he uses nearly invisible technique. So when a tornado passes through town in the title story, leaving behind some monkeys, or when a man turns up in another piece claiming he can see the entire color spectrum at all times, we don't think twice before believing Jonny.
In Louisiana, they have another name for this kind of power. It's called voodoo.
-- John Freeman
Mother of Sorrows
by Richard McCann
(Pantheon: New York)
Richard McCann's exquisite series feels more like a novel than a collection of linked short stories, but categorization is beside the point. What occurs in Mother of Sorrows is nothing less than a life, defined by loss and sorrow, yet consumed with beauty.
The narrator is one of a pair of brothers raised in the post-World War II suburbs of Washington D.C., a sparkling place of innocence, shortwave radios, BB guns, identical brick houses and Zoysia grass lawns. The younger son worships his glamorous mother, dubbing her "Our Mother of the White Silk Gloves ... Our Mother of the Sighs and Heartaches ... Our Mother of the Gorgeous Gypsy Earrings ... Our Mother of the Late Movies and the Cigarettes ... Our Mother whom I adored and whom, in adoring, I ran from knowing it was 'wrong' for a son to wish to be like his mother."
Looking back with the perspective of 30 years, the narrator is the only survivor of his nuclear family, arranging memories to make sense of loss and love. Sexuality and family ties are the predominant subjects, finely nuanced into a spectrum of related issues, woven together with a fine mesh of physical detail.
McCann spent more than a decade on the book, stepping away from it while he became ill, had a liver transplant and recovered. The richness of his experience seems to suffuse the book with a rarely achieved level of storytelling -- worldly and otherworldly at the same time.
Mother of Sorrows whispers and cries, sings and shouts in a cadenced, elegant voice, reminding us of the lives we carry with us as we try to make our own.
-- Kathryn Eastburn