The LA Diaries by James Brown

Down and out in Hollywood
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The Independent Culture

The problem with drunks is that they are invariably boring and often pretty pathetic. Unless you have been a drunk it's hard to understand the power of addiction. Just sober up, you think. Get a life.

Then occasionally someone will come along, a drunk, an addict, a very ill individual indeed, and explain exactly what they have been through: all the shame and remorse, the appalling, hopeless, screwed-up behaviour. And they will do it in such a way that not only do you have a much greater understanding of alcoholism and/or chronic drug abuse, but remarkably, you have a greater understanding of not just human endurance, but of the will to live against all the odds.

This account, despite the sorry, sordid nature of the subject matter, is uplifting, and life-affirming, even rather beautiful. Very few people have carried it off to anything like this degree, and when they do it's often in fictional form, for example Charles Jackson's The Lost Weekend (which was turned into a memorable film), and Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. Classic drinking texts such as Pete Hamill's A Drinking Life and Jack Weiner's The Morning After, though very powerful, have a certain macho insolence in the sheer relentlessness of the abuse. More recently there have been a couple of exceptional memoirs: Nick Charles's Through a Glass Brightly, and John Sutherland's Last Drink to LA. Where Charles told us how he crawled out of the gutter, literally, Sutherland set his own account of alcoholism against an informed, funny look at both AA and the remarkably strong link between literature and alcoholism.

The LA Diaries actually deserves a category all of its own. For while it's primarily about an alcoholic and chronic drug abuser struggling to control his demons, or actually his illness, it is also about how to fail as a Hollywood screenwriter. Yet despite this double dose of failure, the book is an extraordinarily gripping, honest and somehow uplifting tale. It seamlessly moves from bleak to beautiful.

Insiders' accounts of the farcical horrors of La La Land are numerous and exhaustive - Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and Julia Phillips' You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, to name a couple. However, just as Brown's descriptions of his own alcoholism and resulting bad behaviour are more immediate, brutal and believable than anything I came across in either Charles's or Sutherland's books, so his stories of how he was variously sacked and rejected as a screenwriter are more vivid, shocking and funny than anything I've read before on the matter.

That The LA Diaries is not the most depressing book ever written - because aside from the alcoholism and professional failure Brown had to endure, he also had cope with a whole catalogue of family tragedies, including the suicides of his brother and sister - is testament to Brown's skills as a writer, and the ease and incredible openness with which he handles his material. Given that he's an alcoholic and has obviously spent so much of his life in denial, it's amazing just how honest and straight he is. And while the writing of the book might have been a certain sort of therapy for Brown, it certainly doesn't read like it. There's no sermonising, no real hunt for people to blame, and no particular searching for answers. There's just a darkly bright, hugely compassionate, and oddly redemptive story of loss and failure, guilt and addiction.

Not to be confused with the singer, or the Lad Mag pioneer, this James Brown is, as he says at the beginning, "a fiction writer who doesn't make enough money at it not to have to do something else for a living". That something else is screenwriting, which of course doesn't turn out to be very lucrative or fulfilling either. His other day job is as an English professor, variously working for a number of southern Californian universities. Most of the time, however, he's so hungover and strung out on methamphetamine he doesn't know what he's teaching. Now totally cleaned up, he lives in the San Bernardino Mountains, some 60 miles from LA, with his second wife and three sons from his first marriage. He continues to teach, write literary novels that not many people read, and dabble with scripts. But he's under no illusions that he's living a new life, and has been given a massive second chance.

Brown began drinking at nine, and first took heroin at 14. His childhood effectively came to an end when he was six, and his mother, narrowly escaping a conviction for arson and second degree murder, was jailed for tax evasion. Bankrupt, his father struggled to bring up his three children. The youngest, James became almost feral, and was often dismissed from school because of the appalling state of his clothes. By the time his mother was released, James, and his brother Barry and sister Marilyn, had all developed a taste for booze, sex and truancy.

Because they were living in the shadow of Hollywood, his mother was determined that at least one of her children would become an actor and pull them all out of poverty. Initially Barry had a bit of success finding roles in Bad Company, Daisy Miller and Piranha. But the booze got the better of him, and so did the disappointment at messing up his career. He shot himself in the head when he was 27. James and Marilyn were so loaded on coke, vodka and valium that they failed to get to the funeral on time. Marilyn killed herself some 20 years later. She never secured a screen role, nor did she manage to overcome her own addictions.

James Brown, meanwhile, destroyed his first marriage, reeling from one binge to the next. His twenties and thirties were more or less a write-off. That he managed to get any ink on the page, or as they say in the movie industry, "black shit" put down, seems pretty remarkable. His scripts got nowhere - it's likely they were no good - but he survived to write sentences like the following: "We are drunks. We are addicts and we behave recklessly without regard for the consequences of our actions. Sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, we destroy the ones we love as surely as we destroy ourselves." It would make a great film.