Plagued by the suicides of both his siblings, and heir to alcohol and drug abuse, divorce, and economic ruin, James Brown lived a life clouded by addiction, broken promises, and despair.
In The Los Angeles Diaries, he reveals his struggle for survival, mining his past to present the inspiring story of his redemption. Beautifully written and limned with dark humor, these twelve deeply confessional, interconnected chapters address personal failure, heartbreak, the trials of writing for Hollywood, and the life-shattering events that finally convinced Brown that he must “change or die.”
In “Snapshot,” Brown is five years old and recalls the night his mother “sets fire to an apartment building down the street.” In “Daisy,” Brown purchases a Vietnamese potbellied pig for his wife to atone for his sins, only to find the pig’s bulk growing in direct proportion to the tensions in his marriage.
Harrowing and brutally honest, The Los Angeles Diaries is the chronicle of a man on a collision course with life, who ultimately finds the strength and courage to conquer his demons and believe once more.
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About the Author
James Brown is the author of several novels including Lucky Town and Final Performance. He has received the Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction writing and a Chesterfield Film Writing Fellowship from Universal/Amblin Entertainment. His writing has been featured in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Denver Quarterly and New England Review. He lives with his family in Lake Arrowhead, California.
Read an Excerpt
The Los Angeles Diaries
Winter is the season of the arsonist in Southern California. The manzanita and chaparral are dry and brittle and the Santa Ana winds have begun to blow. They move at gale force. They cross the arid Mojave and whip through the canyons of the San Bernardino Mountains, through the live oak and the pines, the ponderosa, the sugar and coulter, white fir and incense cedar. I know these names because I live in these mountains, eighty miles east of the sprawl of Los Angeles, and I worry when the winds come. I worry about the possibility of fire. I know he's out there, the arsonist. I know he's waiting, like me, for a day of opportunity very much like this.
I've seen the Santa Anas uproot trees. I've seen them strip roofing from houses and shatter windows. I've seen them topple big rigs, and once, along the same freeway I'm traveling now, I saw a stop sign flying through the sky. I keep a firm hold on the wheel. The winds hit in sharp gusts and can blow you clean over the line. You have to be ready. You have to hang on tight and keep your eyes on the road.
Traffic moves slowly, carefully. No one's taking any chances, making abrupt lane changes, cutting you off or tail-gating. I would like to believe that it's courtesy that dictates our caution, our good manners, except this is Southern California, I grew up here and I know better. Danger or its potential sometimes brings out the best in us, and I wonder, as I reach to turn on the radio, if maybe it would be a good thing if the Santa Anas blew every day all year-round.
From time to time I find myself having to drive into Los Angeles on business, and just the thought of it always fills me with a sense of dread and anxiety. The city has changed and grown immensely since I knew it as a child, and sometimes even the most familiar streets, streets I grew up on, seem barely recognizable. Gated communities have replaced the bungalows and tract homes and the signs in the windows of the shops and stores are in Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, occasionally Arabic. Where corner markets once stood you'll now find minimalls, and Hollywood landmarks, places like Schwab's and Pandora's Box and the old Brown Derby restaurant, have gone the way of the bulldozer. There are more freeways, too, bigger and wider ones, but the traffic has never been worse.
But it isn't the unfamiliar that makes me anxious. It isn't the traffic or the crowds or the evolving landscape of architecture and ethnicity. I am a fiction writer who doesn't make enough money at it not to have to do something else for a living. So I teach. So I am a professor. And what Hollywood offers me is the chance to escape the classroom and tell stories full-time. Trouble is, I'm not very good at telling stories that pay better and that's what this is about. It's what it has always been about: my driving into Hollywood to talk to producers and executives who like my work but want me to write something more commercial. In this case that less commercial work is my last novel and the screenplay I wrote based on it, a screenplay commissioned by Universal and Amblin, both of whom passed on it when I was done. "I don't know why you ever bothered to write this," an executive tells me, after she finishes reading my script. "It's no movie. It's too real." Now the rights are mine and my agent, who feels differently than the executive, is sending it to other executives and producers in Hollywood. As a sample, he calls it. The idea is not so much to sell the script as it is to sell myself as a scriptwriter. Already I'm looking forward to the end of the day.
The Santa Anas die down as I approach Los Angeles and I ease up on the wheel. I take a deep breath. But I know it's only temporary, this calm. I know better than to let myself relax. That thing called the L.A. River borders the last stretch of the freeway into Burbank, and I look out on it, the dirty water, moving sluggishly through the narrow concrete channel that contains it. Over the rush of the cars I try to imagine it as I was told it used to be, a real river, filled with trout and salmon and lined with sycamores and willows instead of chain-link and barbed wire. But I'm not successful. I think about my brother. I think about my sister. We are children down by that river on a day very much like this with the wind blowing lightly and the smell of fire in the air. I'm nine years old, the youngest, and we're passing a bottle around, a bottle I've stolen from a grocery store nearby. My sister points to the sky.
"Look. Look," she says. "Snow."
Only they're ashes. Ashes are falling. Ashes are everywhere, and in the sunlight they appear white, almost translucent. My head is spinning and I laugh. My brother laughs. I can hear us all laughing as we look to the sky, opening our mouths, catching ashes, like snowflakes, until our tongues turn black.
In the rearview mirror I check to see if my eyes are clear. They are, and they should be. I've gone without a drink or a drug for four days, four long miserable days of white-knuckling it, all because I want to look my best, and I like to think I do ...The Los Angeles Diaries
A Memoir. Copyright © by James Brown. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
Daily Rushes 41
My Papa's Waltz 55
The Facts 61
Personal Effects 117
On Selling a Novel to Hollywood 137
A Fine Place 147
South Dakota 195
Reading Group Guide
Shocking, bleak, and ultimately elegiac, The Los Angeles Diaries chronicles a legacy of addiction, life-shattering tragedy, and the arc of the author's own difficult career as a writer, in an elegant series of twelve interconnected chapters. Written with neither anger nor self-pity, Brown's memoir ranks as one of the most harrowing to emerge in this genre.
As a five year old, Brown waits in the car while his mother sets fire to a building, setting off a chain of events that permanently unravels his comfortable, stable family. Brown watches all the certainties of childhood disappear with her subsequent imprisonment. Thereafter, tragedy follows him like a brushfire spread on the Santa Ana winds. Nimbly emulating his elder sister and brother, Brown escapes into heavy alcohol and drug use. Brown gently and elliptically describes his brilliant brother, a man of rare intelligence and a promising acting career, who shot himself at the age of twenty-seven. Brown's sensitive, shy sister hangs on until her forties, when finally, after a lifetime of disappointment and cocaine fueled benders, she leaps off a highway overpass onto the concrete below.
The only sober and sure thing in his life that keeps Brown going is his writing, between his own days and weeks of drinking and drugging. He writes with the knowledge that every idea, every script meeting, every chance at a screenplay bought or novel sold, might be his last.
Brown draws this brutally honest picture with delicate strokes, revealing his story in fragile, fragmented episodes tinted with dark humor, compassion and an almost miraculous forgiveness. In "Midair," he addresses his sister directly in an open letter, a confession, as he imagines her last moments. In "Daisy," Brown's peace-offering gift to his wife, a pot-bellied pig, chews through five novels-in-progress, and this "manuscript massacre" unleashes a hilarious battle of wills between man and pig. In "The Facts," Professor Brown faces his Monday morning undergraduate English class, desperately trying to conceal the tremors and sweats that arrive on the heels of yet another weekend spent holed up in a seedy motel, drinking and snorting drugs.
Los Angeles figures prominently in these vignettes, a character in its own right, a mirage of hope and folly, as the Brown family helplessly stumbles toward ruin. The sole survivor of his family, James Brown finally finds redemption under the open skies of South Dakota, where he realizes that he must "change or die."
Questions for Discussion
- "In "My Papa's Waltz," Brown recollects dancing with his father as child, and says, "I find myself confusing what actually happened with how I imagine it ... I've come to think that the truth as it occurs isn't of much use to me other than, say, as a catalyst for a story." What is he telling the reader about writers' motives, techniques, and the distinction between reality and fiction? How does he demonstrate the way a writer mines his memories in this chapter? Is it significant that a memoir may not hew strictly to events as they occurred?
- The snapshot in question, in the story "Snapshot," is an idyllic image of a smiling family by the seaside. But his mother's boyishly cropped hair is actually still growing out after being shorn in prison. An older Jim says of the photograph, "Sometimes, when I look at it, I imagine them as strangers." What does this story say about pictures and the false reality they present? Why do you think Brown returns again and again to this photograph?
- How does Brown use images on TV to reflect the emotional climate in "Snapshot" and "Touch?"
- How does the repetitive use of phrases "We'll have to make some changes," "We need a fresh eye," and "They're lightweights anyway" effect "On Selling a Novel to Hollywood?" Do you find the repetitions humorous? What does he mean by, "The drafts are endless, but it's the writer, not the story, who undergoes the most important revisions?"
- In "A Fine Place," a fourteen-year-old Brown begins stealing and shooting heroin, and realizing that he needs "a stronger sense of belonging, of home," decides to live with his father in San Jose. What does his father teach him? Why does Brown like the hard labor and strict discipline of his father's household? How does his father also influence his choice of career?
- As an adult, he realizes that, "this brief time I spent with my father has much to do with why I am still here and my brother and sister are not." Compare Brown's mother and father as parents. How significant are parents to a child's upbringing in the context of this memoir?
- In "Daisy," why does the pig's rapidly increasing girth irritate Brown so much? When he says, "the alcoholic, however, like the pig, is created with certain defense mechanisms and mine are denial and rage," what has he projected onto the pig? How does the pig symbolize his disintegrating marriage? Could the devouring, never satisfied nature of the pig also represent Brown's own addictions?
- What are the problems Barry wanted to escape in "Personal Effects?" Do you think his early success as an actor exacerbated the problem? Do you think his suicide was inevitable?
- In "Midair," how did Marilyn's dreams fade? How does Barry's early success affect her? Do you think the siblings' natures play a role in how their lives turn out?
- Why were the Brown children attracted to careers that required, for the most part, living in one's imagination, careers fraught with rejection and slim chances for success? What role does their troubled family, coupled with the allure of Hollywood fame, play in their choices?
- In "The Facts," Brown thinks someone is watching him. Why is this figure always outside, watching him through windows? What does this figure represent? What do you think Brown means by "I am instead that man I see and don't see and he is watching me, as I am watching him, both of us afraid to step out from the darkness?"
- Does the Brown family attain what they want or need in Hollywood? How is Los Angeles portrayed in The Los Angeles Diaries?
- What insights does this memoir provide into the nature of addiction?
- The twelve linked chapters of The Los Angeles Diaries each contain fragments of a broader narrative arc. Does the structure of this memoir differ from most autobiographical works?
- How does the author sustain narrative tension throughout the memoir as whole? Why do you think James Brown chose to reveal his family history in this manner, as opposed to a more straightforward narrative?
About the author
James Brown is the author of four previous novels. He lives in Lake Arrowhead, CA.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Some might characterize it as a bete noir as Brown has had a tragic life on his way to writing success but it's a powerful piece of work. I met him @ a Redlands CA Barnes & Nobel writing workshop a wk ago. Hes a terrific writer whose understanding of the writing process is superlative.
I really enjoyed this book. It was so painful but told so well. An interesting insight about a struggling artist, trying to sell a screenplay and support a family. Although, there are more depressing themes that arise, the story just keeps you wanting more.
I have always loved this book. I read it in my undergrad and I've recently picked it up again. The main character tries to make us believe that he is remorseful for his actions yet under all the booze and drugs you can't help but to think he likes this life. An amazing read.
When I purchased this book I started to read the first page in the store. Next thing I know I'm half way through and the store is closing. Well written to the point of absorbing. Rather dark, but not emotionally difficult to read. Perhaps this is a sign that I should stop reading celebrity/politician memoirs and start reading ones that are written by writers. I'm very much looking forward to the next book!! I wish it was out already!
Brown does a great job of truly immersing the reading in his world. His book is gripping, heartbreaking and even humorous at times. I found myself struggling along with him as he takes us, as readers, through the many struggles throughout his life. I¿ve seen many people in my life fall victim to drugs and alcohol, and this book helped to see it from their side and how hard it really is to get clean. The suicides in his family hit close to home and I found myself in tears. Great book, written beautifully, with a range of emotions. I had the pleasure of having him as my professor for a quarter and will take him as often as I can. It¿s refreshing to have a writing professor who really knows the craft and the up and downs that come with being a writer. Great writer and great professor!
The Los Angeles Diaries:A Memoir is like watching a train wreck that you cannot seem to turn away from. This painful , gut wrenching memoir is told only as a true alcoholic / drug addict could know. Brown has experienced chronic maheim only to survive while those around him have perished. Depressing, motivating and above all inspirational as no human being is required to still stand after such substance abuse. Not for the timid....
This harrowing account of James Brown's struggle with alcohol and drugs should be required reading for recovering addicts. In remarkable, startling and beautifully-crafted vignettes, the roots and eventual flourishing of Brown's dependency on booze and chemicals seems as inevitable as the sunrise. But, unlike many of his loved ones, he survived to tell us what it means to 'come to rest at a moment of beginning.' It took a brave man to write this memoir. Are you brave enough to read it?