JAMES FRY That Fry Boy. Reviewed by Ashley Kalagian Blunt
This memoir of a shattered childhood and teenage alcoholism reveals how any child might end up on the same self-destructive path.
That Fry Boy opens in the mid-1990s in the Sydney suburb of Epping as 13-year-old James Fry sneaks into his parents’ bedroom to steal their cash. Despite being well-practised – he knows exactly which floorboards to avoid to keep silent – he feels torn, burdened with both heavy guilt at hurting his family (their financial situation becomes so dire their electricity is disconnected) and a relentless need to fuel his alcoholism.
This inner tension is sustained throughout the book. Fry’s alcoholism pushes him from scams and petty thieving to increasingly serious crimes – but his actions rarely mirror his intentions. Though he writes with gritty realism, the narrative has a Twilight Zone feel, as though Fry has become trapped in another person’s life:
I knew that regardless of how genuinely sorry I may have been, it was no longer worth expressing this because I would inevitably just hurt them again. To say ‘sorry’ would likely just infuriate someone who couldn’t fathom why I could genuinely appear to be sorry, yet not stop myself from doing the same thing again and again. I couldn’t understand this either, but it was my reality.
What Fry the adult narrator understands, which his teenage self does not, is that he was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after years of bullying in primary school. After trying drugs and alcohol at a young age, he believed they were the only things capable of bringing him any relief from his anxiety and other PTSD symptoms.
The most poignant aspect of Fry’s memoir is his desperation to get help, first to deal with the bullying, then to deal with his addiction. He goes to his teacher and the principal, but both turn him down. He then tries to inform the police about the ongoing abuse, sending them a letter signed ‘The Phantom’ to protect himself. Still, it’s Fry who gets into trouble over the letter. He has loving and attentive parents, but even when they get involved, the bullying continues.
Feeling worthless and isolated, he begins to act out and becomes typecast and humiliated as a troublemaker. As a teen, he continues to seek help, seeing several psychologists and psychiatrists, but he’s misdiagnosed with ADHD. One professional even dismisses his drinking, which only makes it harder for him to recognise it as a ‘real’ addiction.
As his drinking and drug use escalate, Fry becomes a complicated protagonist. After temporarily joining a white supremacist group – one of the few places where he feels a sense of inclusion – he attacks an Asian man who brushes against him walking along a crowded street. But in relating his violent crimes, Fry never shirks responsibility. Because of this, we’re still able to understand him as another victim in the scenario.
It’s the insights to Fry’s mind that make this a valuable memoir. As both PTSD sufferer and addict, Fry walks readers through his thought processes:
As a result of the years of bullying I had been subjected to in primary school, I had internalised a view of myself as weak and unable ever to stand up for myself. The alcohol I consumed would turn this voice of self-doubt down for long enough so that the other mixed-up emotions such as anger and rage that were floating around in my brain could come gushing out unimpeded.
When the police interrogate Fry for threatening a stranger with a knife, he gives honest answers, even when they ask him to explain his actions. ‘I don’t know,’ he tells them. His confusion and frustration as he repeatedly tries and fails to change his behaviour is heartbreaking.
He finally receives a single piece of advice that enables him to break his addiction. After years of confusion over what it means to be a ‘real’ alcoholic, he’s overjoyed to accept the label:
Excitement at being eligible for a twelve-step program is something that many would find highly perverse, but you have to understand that I had been searching for answers for years now and coming up empty handed every time, continuing to hurt myself and those around me along the way.
Already a father himself, finding suitable help enables him to become responsible towards his partner and son, to study and to start a career.
While the writing is unpolished, its rawness does suit the narrative to a degree. In places, however, the language takes on a formal tone that seems to sit oddly with Fry’s character and experiences. Despite that, this memoir offers many useful insights, particularly for parents or anyone struggling with PTSD or addiction. It succeeds in helping us to understand a typical ‘punk teen’ from inside his own mind, breaking down stereotypes and making us want to help him.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt has written for Griffith Review, McSweeney’s and Right Now. Her travel memoir, The Pomegranate’s Daughter, was awarded a 2015 Varuna Publisher Introduction Prize. She has lived and worked in Canada, South Korea, Peru and Mexico. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter: @AKalagianBlunt.
James Fry That Fry Boy New Holland 2015 PB 240pp $24.99
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.