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Fictional ties bind James Frey’s train wreck and a Gonzaga brawl.
Oprah pouncing on confessed little-white-liar James Frey made for the most uncomfortable television since Lee Harvey Oswald got shot. Frey sat lifeless while the host and her guests unloaded on him, while Nan Talese, his publisher and only defender on the panel, occasionally piped up to protect the troubled putz.
The affair got me to thinking about another novel/memoir—call it the “faboir”—that I wrote about in these pages (“A Novel Brawl,” 1/10/2003). That episode involved Pat Conroy’s basketball-centric alleged autobiography, My Losing Season, and his description of a “free-for-all” brawl at an athletic function at D.C.’s Gonzaga College High School.
Turns out there are a hilarious number of connections between Conroy’s memoir and Frey’s. My Losing Season, for example, was also edited and published by Nan Talese. In interviews to promote Conroy’s book, Talese vouched for its “emotional authenticity.” Much the same language would later be used to defend Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces. And Conroy, of all people, was brought in by Talese to provide the back-cover blurb for Frey’s debut. Conroy called the alleged memoir “the War and Peace of addiction.”
Now that we know what we know—Frey never had time to read War and Peace to his illiterate cellmate, as his book imparts, since he never had a cellmate—Conroy’s comparing Frey’s work to a novel makes more sense now than when he wrote the blurb.
From the beginning: On Dec. 26, 2002, the Washington Post ran a nearly 3,500-word excerpt of Conroy’s My Losing Season on the front page of the Sports section. Conroy, now 60, is among the most beloved and successful novelists of his generation—he wrote The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, and The Water Is Wide, which was neutered for a Hallmark Hall of Fame production that CBS aired last weekend. In her official Random House biography, Talese boasts that she’s edited Conroy for pretty much his whole career. My Losing Season was billed as Conroy’s first work of nonfiction and a daring literary leap for the writer.
But the passage that ran in the Post hardly reeked of reality. The excerpt dealt with Conroy’s year here in D.C., when he attended Gonzaga. As in Conroy’s novels, the protagonist in My Losing Season has an abusive father. In the excerpt, Conroy describes the most publicly traumatic experience of his year here as having taken place in May 1961 in the school’s auditorium. During Gonzaga’s annual athletic-awards ceremony, Conroy alleges he was knocked down to the floor by his father’s flying fists not once but twice. Dad allegedly was inspired to pound the stuffing out of his son after blaming him—erroneously, natch—for a prank played on another Gonzaga student during the function.
“The second backhand caught me on the left jaw, harder than the first, and I went down to the floor again,” Conroy writes. “Then a free-for-all began.”
This alleged “free-for-all” was mostly other Gonzaga fathers—“an angry mob of men,” as Conroy described them—going after his dad, both to protect the kid and punish the abuser.
“They had no idea who my father was and did not care,” Conroy writes. “They saw a stranger knock a Gonzaga boy to his knees and came roaring to my defense.”
However, the youngster allegedly came to Dad’s rescue and dragged him out of the auditorium before the other parents could string him up.
Horrific anecdote, to be sure. But Conroy’s account was as checkable as it was fabulous. In the excerpt, he named the names of some of the fellow Gonzagans at the ceremony with him. Gonzaga, along with being one of the city’s oldest (founded in 1821) and most prestigious preps, has one of the more tightknit alumni groups.
In the excerpt, Conroy places William Bennett, a star athlete in Gonzaga’s class of ’61, several rows in front of him the night of the donnybrook. Bennett, who went on to join the Reagan and Bush I cabinets and become both our country’s preachiest moralist and most notorious slots player, remembered going to the athletic-honors ceremony his senior year but had no recollection of any violence, let alone a “free-for-all.” Conroy also placed his school chum Chris Warner right beside him at the ceremony. Warner, living in Maryland suburbs, could not recall any rumpus.
Perhaps Bennett and Warner were indisposed in the washroom when Conroy’s dad whipped out the can of whoopass. But surely an incident like the one Conroy described—an all-hands brawl at the annual athletic-awards ceremony!—would have its own chapter in Gonzaga lore, even all these years later. The school wears its athletic tradition on its purple-and-white sleeves and still holds awards ceremonies each year.
Yet none of the Gonzagans I got in touch with could remember any such battle royale involving the Conroys or any disturbance approximating the account in My Losing Season. Pat Buchanan, a member of the class of ’56 and as loyal an alum as Gonzaga has, told me he’d never heard about a brawl until he read about it in the Post. Buchanan, one of seven siblings to attend Gonzaga, then asked his brothers about the alleged Awards Ceremony Massacre of ’61, but, he said, “They said they never heard it either.”
The only Gonzagan I could find who was at all aware of a Conroy-esque scuffle was Danny Costello, the school’s vice president for development and a member of the class of ’72. Alas, Costello heard it only from Conroy, who spoke of such an event during a visit the writer paid to the school years earlier. Costello did, however, offer a strong rationale for not getting worked up about the beat-down Conroy suffered in My Losing Season, whether or not it occurred in the real world: “Everything [Conroy] writes, his dad beats him up,” Costello said. “I know he gets pounded in The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides, and stories about his dad beating him up are in every article that’s ever been written about the guy.”
Conroy, when presented with an armada of e-mails and phone calls from the Washington City Paper detailing the nonconfirmations of his version of the Gonzaga brawl, offered only a tepid response through his literary agent, Marly Russoff. “No one saw him get hit, and he did not discuss it with anyone,” Russoff told me, relaying a message from Conroy.
That explanation is a worm-can opener, of course, because if nobody saw Conroy get hit by his dad, then the whole passage about Gonzaga dads coming after the elder Conroy is bogus. And that means the whole brawl is bogus. And that means any lasting emotional impact Conroy suffered as a result of the brawl, meaning big chunks of My Losing Season, is bogus. Oh, what a tangled web!
In a 2003 interview with the Web zine Zulkey.com, soon after A Million Little Pieces hit the shelves and long before Oprah offered him a seat on her stage, James Frey was asked to name his favorite memoirists. After citing Conroy, Charles Bukowski, and Bret Easton Ellis, Frey said, “None of these guys actually wrote memoirs, but they all wrote about themselves. Though I used my real name, I consider my work in the same tradition.”
And, by now, so do a lot of other folks. As has been written too many times in recent weeks, Frey’s book insinuates his life was shaped by an event that never happened. In A Million Little Pieces, he tells of losing his only friend in a train wreck and becoming a pariah in his hometown of St. Joseph, Mich., when folks learn of his role in the fatal accident. His adolescence spent as the town’s Public Enemy No. 1 dooms Frey to a life of ne’er-do-welldom and jail stays and all sorts of life experiences that, like being blamed for a friend’s death in a train wreck, he never experienced.
There’s one last connection between Talese’s older and newer protégés: Conroy and Frey both got big movie deals for their books with the same production company, Plan B, a firm founded by Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt. —Dave McKenna