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A rough road to sobriety

A Million Little Pieces, James Frey, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 384 pp., $22.95

May 18, 2003|Jeff Turrentine | Jeff Turrentine is an essayist and critic whose work has appeared in Book Review, the New York Times Magazine, Architectural Digest and Slate.com.

By the time he reached the legal drinking age, James Frey had already been profoundly addicted to alcohol for more than half a decade; if he wasn't drunk, which wasn't often, he was sniffing glue, inhaling gas fumes or smoking crack. Eventually he fell headfirst down a fire escape during the mother of all benders and was sent to detoxify at Minnesota's Hazelden clinic, which, while it goes unnamed, is clearly the setting for "A Million Little Pieces," the gripping if stylistically overcooked account of his unlikely recovery.

Autopathographies -- memoirs that ascend the bestseller list by vividly detailing their authors' descent into the hell of dysfunction -- are too often book-length exercises in apologia. What distinguishes Frey's memoir from so many others in the genre is his refusal to blame his addiction on genetics, bad parenting, cultural ennui or anything but his own nihilistic appetites. "I am what I am, which is an Alcoholic and a Drug Addict and a Criminal, and I am what I am because I made myself so," he confesses at one point to his heartbroken parents. There's also no role for God in his hard-bitten existentialism, putting him at loggerheads with the clinic's 12-step philosophy, a nonnegotiable tenet of which is the surrender of one's destiny to a higher power.

Frey's rejection of the 12 steps, rooted in a crude but sincere atheism, registers as little more than ill-tempered defiance by the clinic's staff, whose patience and compassion are not without their limits. From the moment he arrives, bruised and bloodied beyond recognition, Frey causes trouble. He gets into fights, provokes his counselors, flagrantly violates the ban on fraternizing with members of the opposite sex and ignores demands to stay away from Leonard, the shadowy fellow patient with Las Vegas mob ties who will become Frey's best friend and father figure.

But even as he refuses his counselors' ministrations and methodologies, something is at work deep within Frey: He is inching toward a kind of secular spiritual placidity, fueled by a paperback copy of "Tao Te Ching" given to him by his brother. In the Tao, Frey detects a road map that could lead him out of his condition. Its gnomic epigrams, designed to encourage liberation from desire and to erase the distinctions between binary opposites, inspire him to consider for the first time whether the rage and pain he has worked so hard to kill with drugs might not be the "opposites" of peace and contentment but rather their necessary counterparts, equal partners in a holistic metaphysics. With this awakening comes the overdue recognition of his own agency. The events of our lives aren't the result of some scripted tragedy, he concludes, but can all be traced to "a decision. Each and every time. String enough of those decisions together and you set a course and you set a standard of living."

Frey recalls his journey out of the depths in a self-consciously mannered style characterized by minimally punctuated run-on sentences, the eschewal of quotation marks and attributions to denote dialogue and the erratic capitalization of certain, presumably important, nouns. Here's the author describing a fit of self-loathing: "I breathe and I shake and I can feel it coming and rage and need and confusion regret horror shame and hatred fuse into a perfect fury a great and beautiful and terrible and perfect fury the Fury and I can't stop the Fury or control the Fury I can only let the Fury come come come come come." No doubt Frey felt that his infernal travelogue required "a new narrative voice" and couldn't be told conventionally, but the calculated idiosyncrasy of that voice seems anything but new; readers of William S. Burroughs ("Junkie," "Naked Lunch") or Hubert Selby Jr. ("Last Exit to Brooklyn") will recognize the sizable debt owed to their revolutionary examples. Frey's unornamented style does, however, lend an eerie, almost reportorial deadpan to many scenes of Grand Guignol horror, including plenty of bleeding and purging, a graphic bit of self-mutilation and a root canal operation performed without anesthesia.

A few months back, Frey gave an unintentionally hilarious interview to a New York newspaper in which he more or less nominated himself as America's Next Great Literary Voice and dismissed critically acclaimed rivals like Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Safran Foer as a bunch of effete ironists out of touch with the real world. "I'm going to try to write the best book of my generation and I'm going to try to be the best writer," he told his interviewer. Suffice it to say that he's not quite there yet. "A Million Little Pieces," while a great story, doesn't necessarily herald the debut of a great storyteller. It represents a triumph of the human spirit, not of literature.

In the end, Frey vanquishes his demons by forging meaningful connections with a counselor, a handful of fellow patients (including a woman -- rules be damned) and, finally, his parents; it is our relationship to others, he comes to understand, that infuses our all-important string of everyday decisions with meaning. For all of his profane surliness, Frey -- while he would never admit it -- is really a kind of rough-hewn transcendentalist, whose homemade amalgam of Taoism and Emersonian self-reliance acknowledges no power higher than our power to choose. By the end of "A Million Little Pieces," when Frey makes the first of a million little choices that will determine the course of the rest of his life, you can't help but cheer his victory.

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