June 2003

Michael Schaub

fiction

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

Let's be honest. Even James Frey is sick of reading about James Frey at this point. It took the New York-based author exactly one interview (in the New York Observer) to become a literary celebrity, even before his debut book, A Million Little Pieces, hit bookstores. Frey was quoted at length about his ambition to be the best writer of his generation, and his dislike of postmodern it-boys Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace. The Observer article was good publicity for the folks at Doubleday, but it could well have bruised Frey's reputation -- even though he followed the interview up with a series of conciliatory statements in publications like Entertainment Weekly and Gawker. More recently, Gus Van Sant announced he was interested in adapting A Million Little Pieces into a movie, perhaps one with a lovely Elliott Smith song in the final scene. And the New York Observer (again with the Observer) reported that disgraced New York Times moron Jayson Blair was reading Frey's book, perhaps while awaiting the inevitable ass-kicking that Blair so richly deserves.

For all this to happen, though, James Frey had to write a book. And though readers can hardly be blamed for raising an eyebrow whenever a hyped young author's book hits stores, A Million Little Pieces really is a hell of a book.

And in this case, "hell" is the operative word. A Million Little Pieces is the story of Frey's gradual, painful recovery from drug addiction at a well-known rehabilitation center in Minnesota. (Frey doesn't mention the name of the clinic in his book, but he's since confirmed that it was Hazelden.) Frey ended up at the clinic after plunging several miles below rock bottom, enduring a fall from a balcony that could well have killed him. Instead, he woke up on an airplane bound for Chicago and his parents, who took him to the clinic.

That gets the reader to page seven. The bulk of A Million Little Pieces takes place in the confines of the clinic, which Frey enters reluctantly and more than a little skeptically. If this were a TV movie, Frey would gradually be won over by the kind-hearted clinic staff and eventually come to recognize the infallible wisdom of the Twelve-Step Program. There's no such epiphany, though, and Frey is unsparing (though, it seems, painstakingly fair) in his depiction of clinic staffers and fellow patients, some of whom seem less concerned about health and recovery and more interested in enforcing a series of asinine rules and regulations.

Of course, this only comes up because Frey seems to break pretty much every rule and regulation in the clinic, including the one that prohibits patients from speaking with members of the opposite sex. (The stated reason for this particular rule seems to be that male patients could be "distracted" by female patients, and vice versa. I guess they don't let gay people into Hazelden.) Enter Lilly, a crack addict who becomes Frey's girlfriend of sorts. Their relationship is all secret phone calls and illicit meetings in the woods surrounding the center, which predictably raises the ire of the clinic's administration. Frey, of course, doesn't care; he's in love. And even though Lilly might be the book's least developed character, the passages about her are both disarmingly sweet and refreshingly clear-eyed. This isn't the type of subject a young author should be able to handle so effortlessly, but Frey does exactly that -- and it's a hell of a neat trick.

Even if Lilly remains a bit of an enigma (to Frey, one supposes, as well as to the reader), the other supporting characters in A Million Little Pieces are stunningly drawn. There's Miles, an alcoholic federal judge from New Orleans who becomes Frey's roommate at the clinic. There's Leonard, a mobster who becomes something of a father figure for Frey. And there's Joanne, the psychologist who is alternately frustrated and fascinated by her young patient. Frey recounts them each with occasionally understated admiration and an unusually ardent compassion. It is unbelievably difficult to write effective characterization in a memoir, but Frey's gimlet-eyed descriptions and pitch-perfect dialogue shed light on some of the more unusual and interesting characters in recent American nonfiction.

It's tempting to believe Frey was more concerned with his fellow patients' stories than his own when he wrote this book. That's not to say he doesn't tell his own story well -- he writes about pain, one of the book's main themes, more convincingly than just about every drug-chic novelist you could name. (I'm looking at you, Irvine Welsh.) This is particularly apparent in a harrowing scene in a dentist's office, where Frey undergoes extensive dental surgery without anesthesia or painkillers. Compared to this, the torture scene in the movie Marathon Man is about as scary as Hello Kitty having a tea party with the Teletubbies. (OK, maybe that's a bad example.) Markedly less successful is Frey's attempt to describe the role of the Tao Te Ching, a gift from his brother, in his recovery. Frey seems to have never heard of the book before reading it in the clinic, which is odd -- it's not exactly an obscure book. It's obvious the Tao Te Ching affected him deeply, and it's obvious to what end -- he uses the book as the cornerstone of the philosophy he adopts while recovering. It's just not obvious how he got to that point. His observations on Taoism are a little weak and spare, though not unintelligent.

Unlike its literary predecessor, Frederick Exley's autobiographical novel A Fan's Notes, A Million Little Pieces is equally concerned with pain and redemption. Even Frey's redemption is painful, though, and while that makes for a wrenching reading experience, it's a hell of a lot more realistic than the easy answers spouted by self-help gurus and addiction "experts" with psychology degrees. This book needs to be taught in high schools, where the current anti-drug curriculum seems to consist entirely of "Just Say No" red-ribbon bullshit, awkward lectures in health class, and Go Ask Alice. They might as well teach it in literature classes while they're at it -- this is an honest, passionate and terribly beautiful book.

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
ISBN: 0385507755
383 Pages

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