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James Frey is an alcoholic and a drug addict and a criminal. He started drinking at age 10, began using drugs at 12, and at 18 was getting drunk and high daily. By age 23, Frey was wanted in three states. On the day his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, begins, he wakes up on a plane not knowing where he’s going, how he got where he is, or why he’s covered in “spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood.” He exits the plane after it lands in Chicago, pushed in a wheelchair by a flight attendant and unsure who, if anyone, will be there to meet him.
James Frey wants you to feel his pain, but you won’t hear any Daddy-didn’t-love-me bullshit during the recovery process chronicled in A Million Little Pieces. Instead, you’ll find Frey strapped to a dentist’s chair, about a week after his parents pick him up from the airport and check him into the Hazelden clinic in Minnesota. Four of his teeth are gone, and because Frey has officially begun rehab, he’s not allowed any anesthesia for the root canals he’s about to undergo; his only sources of comfort are a Babar book and a couple of tennis balls to grip. Hence the straps:
The drill is back on and it is working through the fragment of my left front tooth…. At the point of penetration, a current shoots through my body that is not pain, or even close to pain, but something infinitely greater.
Everything goes white and I cannot breathe. I clench my eyes and I bite down on my existing teeth and I think my jaw might be breaking and I squeeze my hands and I dig my fingers through the hard rubber surface of the tennis balls and my fingernails crack and my fingernails break and my fingernails start to bleed and I curl my toes and they fucking hurt and I flex the muscles in my legs and they fucking hurt and my torso tightens and my stomach muscles feel as if they’re going to collapse and my ribs feel as if they’re caving in on themselves and it fucking hurts…and the thick blue nylon straps are cutting my flesh and it fucking hurts and my face is on fire and the veins in my neck want to explode and my brain is white and it is melting and it fucking hurts. There is a drill in my mouth. My brain is white and it feels as if it’s fucking melting. I cannot breathe. Agony….
Please end. Please end. Please end.
Frey’s literary debut is a virtual addiction itself, viscerally affecting with its blunt descriptions and emotions as raw as its grammar (and a world away from the author’s prior most notable achievement, the screenplay for the widely panned David Schwimmer vehicle Kissing a Fool). Frey clues the reader in to the extent of his addiction at the same time his counselors and parents learn of his past, forgoing flashbacks for confessional-appropriate timelines of his downfall. (“Twenty-one. Bad year. I started smoking crack, which I loved.”)
Frey’s writing is a study in evocative depiction without flourish: His stitches are “old and black and crusty”; when a roommate offers him an oxford to replace a T-shirt that’s “white and brown and red” after Frey gets sick, he writes:
It is stiff from the starch, but soft beneath. The cotton is expensive and finely woven, probably made in some faraway Country. It is the cleanest, nicest thing I have worn in as long as I can remember, and I feel as if I don’t deserve to have it on my sick body.
When he’s feeling introspective, Frey’s words inevitably fall into a rhythm, from his frequent repetition of “I am an Alcoholic and I am a drug Addict and I am a Criminal” to his consideration of the clinic’s psych-test questions: “I often think of death. True. Suicide is a reasonable option. True. My sins are unpardonable. I stare at the question. My sins are unpardonable. I stare at the question. My sins are unpardonable. I leave it blank.”
A Million Little Pieces reads like a rough draft, with stream-of-consciousness random capitalization, no paragraph indentations or quotation marks, and little formatting besides the occasional bold or all-caps text for emphasis. This presentation, though distracting at first, lends Frey’s account a surprising soreness, whether he’s puking his guts out during detox or defanging a bullying fellow patient:
He steps forward again. I can smell his breath, feel his spit on my cheeks. The Fury rises.
I’LL GET YOU THROWN OUT OF HERE ON YOUR FUCKING ASS, YOU LITTLE SHIT.
I reach up and I grab Roy by the throat and I squeeze and I throw him against the wall of the Bathroom and he hits with a thud and he starts screaming.
HELP HELP HELP HELP.
I grab him again and I shove him through the door. He hits the wall outside the door and he slumps to the ground and he continues screaming.
HELP HELP HELP HELP.
For all his thuggish behavior and revolting indulgence (which is transferred to food and cigarettes once the drugs and alcohol are taken away), Frey is nonetheless an intelligent and somehow sympathetic narrator. A son of well-off, busy parents, Frey first tried alcohol at football games and dinner parties, saying, “I don’t know why I did it, I just did…and I liked it.” As he got older, he tried pot, coke, acid, meth, and crack the same way, first out of curiosity and later out of need, until he was getting high and sick every day, culminating in the two-week bender (and fire-escape fall) that landed him on the plane to Chicago.
Once he’s told that going back to his old lifestyle will likely kill him within daysa wake-up call only because in his constant oblivion he didn’t care to realize it himselfFrey, who initially can’t pledge to his counselor to “do whatever it takes” to overcome his addictions, becomes a willing participant in his recovery. He tries to drop his tough-guy stoicism and follow the clinic’s rulesthe most notable exception being his forbidden contact with fellow patient Lilly, with whom he falls in lovethough he deems certain exercises too ridiculous, such as a “First Step” coloring book, which prompts him to scrawl “I…
Control” over 11 contiguous pages in black crayon.
Frey, unlike many who commit their imperfections to paper, blames no one else for his problems and stubbornly insists, against the clinic’s advice and statistics, that he’ll stay sober in the future out of mortal willpower alonethe 12 steps, and all their godliness, be damned. He refuses to accept that alcoholism and drug addiction are anything but personal choices. And he not only focuses on his own distress but keenly observes the people around him, weaving together an engrossing portrait of a diversity of characters and their cravings, emotional fluctuations, and interactionsboth aggressive and tender.
As compulsively readable as A Million Little Pieces’ dramatic moments areand certain scenes do reach cinematic crescendos, selective recall being perhaps a convenient bonus from the near-decade of distance between Frey’s rehab and the publication of the bookthe story is also full of affection and un-Hallmark-y love. Frey’s relationship with his largely ignorant parents is heart-wrenching, from their unexpected first-chapter appearance to their support of him in the clinic’s family program, support that remains unflinching even after they hear the details of his transgressions and despite his seemingly inexplicable rage whenever they’re near (a feeling that does begin to dissolve as their mutual therapy progresses, though gradually enough to never seem a matter of dramatic convenience).
Above all, Frey is appreciative of the chance he’s given. He’s touched by even the smallest kindnesses from the many people who help him stay alive and never fails to thank them; his conversation with the dentist immediately after the root-canal ordeal is especially warm, even though he has just vomited blood and is barely able to stand. These instances are made more vivid by the found poetry of the writing: Frey’s brutally honest brush adeptly paints an environment where, amid all the sickness and sorrow, a clean cotton shirt can be a thing of beauty. CP