This Week's Reads

James Frey and Amitava Kumar.

My Friend Leonard

By James Frey (Riverhead Books, $24.95) If you made your name with an agonizing addiction memoir, what do you do when you're clean and sober? James Frey takes the most obvious answer—you write about struggling to find a new life—and merges it with an unlikely but moving character study. Readers of Frey's debut, A Million Little Pieces, will already be familiar with Leonard, the suave mobster who became one of the author's greatest allies at the rehab center that saved them from drug addiction—and, in the author's case, from alcoholism. Pieces ended with the suicide of one of Frey's best friends; her death is what sets Leonard in motion. Yet Frey is still engaged in fighting his drinking habit, too, and what distinguishes this book from many lesser addiction memoirs is his knack for weaving reminders of how difficult it is to stay clean into the fabric of the story. When he goes out with his friends to shoot pool, he makes sure to mention that he's drinking cola; it's a subtle but effective way to underscore the maddening challenge of recovery, which he describes as follows: "It ebbs and flows, this temptation sometimes easy to resist sometimes difficult, sometimes so overwhelming that I know if I move I'm done." Frey writes with little regard for the rules of punctuation, a quirk that propels you through the text at breakneck speed. Since Leonard is an easier read than its predecessor, fueled by both the recovery plot and the charisma of its title character, you might polish the whole thing off in one extended sitting. At the outset, Leonard is a necessary evil in the author's life—he makes his first appearance by breaking into Frey's apartment—but he quickly becomes a cherished mentor, and along the way there's plenty of hard-bitten banter between the two. When Leonard brings up the five stages of grief ("Saw something about them on some ladies' show"), Frey responds sullenly: "Fuck you, Leonard, and fuck your five stages of grief." Leonard just laughs. This is a friendship that's manly, not macho; a double surprise at the end of the book confirms it, although Leonard's paternal instincts toward Frey—he calls him "my son" and introduces him as such to strangers—hint at his tenderness throughout. Though a significant change of pace from the staggering pain recounted in Pieces, Leonard proves that an upward spiral can be just as compelling as its downward counterpart. NEAL SCHINDLER James Frey will appear at Town Hall (1119 Eighth Ave., 206-624-6600; $5), 7:30 p.m. Tues., June 28. Husband of a Fanatic: A Personal Journey Through India, Pakistan, Love and Hate

By Amitava Kumar (New Press, $24.95) Scattered throughout Amitava Kumar's disjointed nonfiction meditation on the virulent hatred between Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan are a few insightful moments, such as when the Indian philosophy of Hindutva is wryly described as "an inclusive ideology which grants Muslims and Christians the right to be Hindus in India." And then there's a line our homegrown American fundamentalists could learn from: "What was the meaning of saying that the [Hindu] Vedas were the inspired Word of God? If they were inspired, why not also the Bible and the Koran?" Unfortunately, almost all the trenchant writing in the book is the work of other authors (Mukul Kesavan and Gandhi, respectively, are cited above). Kumar himself rambles on about how Hindus hate Muslims and vice versa, and how Indians hate Pakistanis and vice versa, inelegantly mashing together news reports with first-person recollections from his childhood, musings on his life as the Hindu husband of a Muslim woman, and interviews with people on all sides of the divide. You're left only with a sense that religious fundamentalists are equally deranged the world over, though perhaps more violently so in India and Pakistan. (Unnecessarily graphic details of torture and butchery litter the book.) In an era when understanding religious extremism is vital, you want to appreciate Fanatic, you really do, despite its misleading title (Kumar's wife is never presented as the least bit fanatical). But Kumar makes doing so impossible; he's too busy dragging you from country to country and presenting one historical atrocity after another without any apparent logic. More problematically, he arrives at no real conclusion. Yes, the essentially arbitrary 1947 partition of India that created Muslim Pakistan spawned decades of violence that continues today. Sure, Muslims are as oppressed by Hindus in India as Hindus are by the majority in Pakistan. Yes, the fact that the two nations exchanged 13 nuclear threats during the 1999 Kargil face-off is terrifying. But knowing those facts brings us no closer to understanding the conflict, much less resolving it. Ultimately, Kumar's book falls apart as a historical narrative, fails as coherent journalistic inquiry, and doesn't even come close to an intimate analysis of the author's personal beliefs. PATRICK ENRIGHT

 
comments powered by Disqus