BOOK REVIEW: Katerina by James Frey

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James Frey is writing like he just doesn’t give a fuck – unabashed, unashamed and brutally honest storytelling in its rawest form.

Controversy is never very far away from James Frey, it has followed his every move since he exploded onto the scene with A Million Little Pieces and well it’s still there lurking behind him waiting to pounce like a shadow with an agenda. But, with Katerina Frey is in the best writing form of his life (even after such as sustained absence), his doubters may have to sit up and take note of the brilliance on offer; of a writer that should be being celebrated for his artistry in writing rather than being vilified for his past crimes (if you can call them crimes – we certainly don’t!).

Katerina might just be his rawest work to date – Frey’s writing is about setting the world on fire, breaking conventions and norms and with Katerina he may have just achieve all of that.

‘Don’t say it again, don’t be fucking sorry for me.
I stare at her, don’t say a word, just stare. And pain, the kind that hurts worse than anything physical, starts to envelop me. Comes from somewhere deep, as deep as anything inside me, maybe my heart, maybe my soul, maybe my spirit, maybe my brain, probably all of them, heavy and crushing and overwhelming pain, the kind that makes people drink, stay in bed for weeks at a time, reach for the motherfucking revolver and pull the trigger.’

I fell in love with James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces because it was balls out, I don’t give a shit what they think writing – this is me, take it or leave it. I didn’t give two hoots about if it was a memoir or a fiction book, if he duped me or not, if it happened or didn’t! The writing alone is reason enough to buy, read and celebrate this author. It is phenomenal and contains one of the greatest opening chapters I’ve ever read (my own opinion of course).

Frey’s prose and writing structure break every convention going and it’s refreshing to see a writer take such risks and unflinching in his stance of creative freedom. These creative decisions have caused each of his adult novels to live long in the memory with each being masterfully executed in a style that is instantly recognisable as the work of James Frey – that my friends is the sign of a true great!

Katerina is everything I fell in love with about James Frey but aged like a good whisky – it’s quintessentially Frey but dialled up to 100 – unashamed, brazen brilliance. He writes about the brokenness of man so well, it reminds me of Bukowski and comparisons can be made with the great John Fante and his fictional character Arturo Bandini.

‘I learned art is about doing what had never been done before, challenging paradigms, moving them, defying them, destroying them. If there is a rule break it, if you are taught to do one thing do something else, if someone tells you something is wrong it is probably right. And so instead of trying to write the right way, I started writing the wrong way. Grammar how I felt like using it punctuation how I felt like using it words in whatever way I pleased putting them on the page
I had never lived my life according to rules or expectations. Why should I write according to them.

Frey is often seen as the bad boy of American Literature – but to be honest I don’t think he really cares? His writing is evocative, aggressive and damn right brilliant – the way he packages his words shouldn’t really work…it could be seen as jarring – but in the hands of Frey you can’t help but stand back in awe at his mastery of the written word. They hang on the page like pieces of artwork. In my opinion he is one of the most important and finest writers to emerge from America in years, I hold him up there with Bukowski, Fante, Ellis, Hubert Selby Jnr, Palahniuk – the list goes on!

‘I didn’t give a fuck about anything except the next word the next sentence did it look right sound right read right feel right, I didn’t give a fuck about genre classification, I didn’t give a fuck about fact or fiction, I didn’t give a fuck how it would be read or received it was words on a page it was a story being told it was the clearest purest most direct statement of expression I could make all that mattered was the next word, the next sentence, was it right, was it fucking right.’

Katerina in particular, has a real heart to the piece. There is also a lot of sex thrown into the book too – maybe a little too much…but it would appear from reading Katerina that this was quite a hedonistic and informative time for Frey, the book is essentially a love story, so why wouldn’t it be in there (I guess his graphic almost pornographic depictions about these acts may offend some readers and could be seen as quite repetitive, but I guess this will all boil down to personal taste) but again Frey hits those pressure points so well, as if hitting a nail with a sledgehammer – which will make people either love it or hate it.

Frey is therefore the Marmite of the literary world, you’ll either love him or hate him…but I don’t think he’s fazed one iota! Frey is writing with the freedom that comes when you just don’t care, when you’ve released yourselves from the shackles that enslave you into a corporate (literary / publisher / editor / censorship) machine – when you are free to create because you’ve transcended your persecutors and are focused on the art of writing and not the backlash!

Who really gives a shit about what critics have to say anyway…as art is in the eye of the beholder (or in our case the reader) but I truly believe that in Katerina Frey quite literally puts his hand into his chest removes his bleeding heart…warts and all, leaving this ragged hunk of meat a bleeding, thumping mess on the page.

‘I gobble about half of each taco, which is all my stomach can handle, Katerina takes one or two tiny bites of each, I wish I could get her to eat more but she’s always respectful of my shit, of my madness and my addictions, so I am respectful of hers. We’re both broken in some way, both in pieces. She seems to know how to put mine back together. Hopefully I can help with hers.’

Katerina is a story in two parts, we read about his time in Paris between 1992 – 1993 and then this is interspersed with the present (2017) – it’s an ingenious way to link this book with his other works (which we will now classify as a trilogy), but you can also tell that writing this book has possibly been a cathartic release for Frey too (when you understand the circumstances) – his writing is honest and direct.

The 1992 / 1993 parts of the book take the reader through what had happened to Frey prior to the start of A Million Little Pieces with the 2017 parts exploring the reemergence of Katerina in his life, his downfalls, pressures, lawsuits, books, controversies etc. Frey also spends small sections of the book examining his own shortcomings – which are very interesting to witness, as Frey humbles himself and sends it all out there for the world to read – it’s a brutally honest account of his past (that no one really knows about) right up to the present!

‘One book two books three books four. Hatred and love, banning and burnings and lawsuits, headlines and talk shows and readings with thousands of people, book tours around the globe enraged journalists and devoted fans terrified editors and cancelled contracts best-seller lists and movie deals the world it fucking burned. It was magnificent and terrifying and surreal and thrilling and terrible and heartbreaking and inspiring and exhausting. I gave it everything and it took everything…’

A wonderful capstone to end to his trilogy of books A Million Little Pieces, My Friend Leonard and Katerina – written with all the passion, heart, soul and boldness that would make Bukowski, Fante and Miller stand in appreciation! Some have called this book career suicide (you know who you are) – we’d say Katerina is an electric shock to a stagnant literary market, more concerned with being nice to one another rather than writing challenging fiction that knows no bounds – Katerina is bold, daring and so very Frey!

You can read our interview with James Frey here.

Katerina is published by John Murray and is available here.


James Frey


James Frey is originally from Cleveland. He is the author of A Million Little Pieces, My Friend Leonard, Bright Shiny Morning, and The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, all international bestsellers. He has sold more than 20 million books and his work is published in forty-two languages.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery




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