“A Million Little Pieces“ by James Frey is a book unlike any other I have ever read. It almost seems an understatement to call it electrifying, engrossing, horrifying, heartbreaking, haunting, and unforgettable, but it is all those things. And then some.
A debut memoir that has had the literary world buzzing for the past six months or so and has been hailed as the “War and Peace“ of its genre, it is a tale about an alcohol and drug addiction that has never been told in such a way before. Its uncompromising fury and forthrightness and visceral, repetitive, kinetic style reveal not just a story about the darkest abyss to which a human can sink, but the incredible light that can be found in redemption. And throughout, right up until the very last page, you are not sure which tale you are reading.
In a word, the book is remarkable.
It begins with the then-23-year-old waking up on a plane, not knowing where he came from, where he is going, or what happened to him. Immediately, the reader is plunged headfirst into his trainwreck of a life, and Freys prose dares you to look away:
“I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut. I open them and I look around and I‘m in the back of a plane and there‘s no one near me. I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood.
I reach for the call button and I find it and I push it and I wait and thirty seconds later an Attendant arrives.
How can I help you?
Where am I going?
You don‘t know?
You‘re going to Chicago, Sir.
How did I get here?
A Doctor and two men brought you on.
They say anything?
They talked to the Captain, Sir.
We were told to let you sleep. How long till we land?
About twenty minutes.
Although I never look up, I know she smiles and feels sorry for me. She shouldn‘t.
A short while later we touch down. I look around for anything I might have with me, but there‘s nothing. No ticket, no bags, no clothes, no wallet. I sit and I wait and I try to figure out what happened. Nothing comes.
Once the rest of the Passengers are gone I stand and start to make my way to the door. After about five steps I sit back down. Walking is out of the question.
I see my Attendant friend and I raise a hand.
Are you okay?
I can‘t really walk.
If you make it to the door I can get you a chair.
How far is the door?
I stand. I wobble. I sit back down. I stare at the floor and take a deep breath.
You‘ll be all right. I look up and she‘s smiling.
Here. She holds out her hand and I take it. I stand and I lean against her and she helps me down the Aisle. We get to the door. I‘ll be right back. I let go of her hand and I sit down on the steel bridge of the Jetway that connects the Plane to the Gate. I‘m not going anywhere. She laughs and I watch her walk away and I close my eyes. My head hurts, my mouth hurts, my eyes hurt, my hands hurt. Things without names hurt. I rub my stomach. I can feel it coming. Fast and strong and burning. No way to stop it, just close your eyes and let it ride. It comes and I recoil from the stench and the pain. There‘s nothing I can do. Oh my God. I open my eyes. I‘m all right. Let me find a Doctor. I‘ll be fine. Just get me out of here.
Can you stand?
Yeah, I can stand.
I stand and I brush myself off and I wipe my hands on the floor and I sit down in the wheelchair she has brought me. She goes around to the back of the chair and she starts pushing.
Is someone here for you?
I hope so.
You don‘t know.
What if no one‘s there? I
t‘s happened before, I‘ll find my way.“
Wanted by authorities in three states, without ID or any money, his body and face mangled and tortured, Frey has just hit the ultimate rock bottom of a 13-year alcohol and crack cocaine habit that began when he was only 10. He has no illusions about who he is, and his oft-repeated mantra is “I am an Alcoholic and I am a drug Addict and I am a Criminal.“ As he gets off the plane, his stunned family is there to take him to the famed Hazelden Clinic in Minneapolis, MN, but Frey is hardly a likely candidate for rehab, and steadfastly refuses to have anything to do with AA, Twelve Steps, higher powers, or any of the recognized methods that have been used to conquer addiction.
At Hazelden, he does, however, find steadily brighter glimmers of light that come from unlikely places, namely in an ill-fated romance he has with a doomed crack addict named Lilly, a friendship he builds with a mysterious crime figure and a federal judge who challenge him to confront his demons of rage and pain, and staff members who cant support his resistence to the addiction treatment principles they will not deviate from, but gradually warm to his belief that he can say yes or no to abuse, and he intends to choose “no.“
Throughout the nearly 400 pages of the book, there are sections that will force the reader to stand back, if not recoil from the horror that is being played out. One of the most harrowing sections comes early when Frey undergoes major dental surgery without any anesthesia of any sort or painkillers. His detailed, pitiless accounting of his years of abuse and crime are another, as is the section where he lists every wrong he has ever committed in his life, especially those done while under the influence or in search of more drugs and alcohol.
There are others, believe me, there are many others, and a testament to the power of what can be an almost surreal reading experience comes in the form of sometimes having to re-read a section, let alone picking the book up again once youve finished to start over again. Frey has declared that he wants to be “the greatest literary voice“ of his generation, and whether that will turn out to be the case remains to be seen, but one thing for now is certain - he has written a stunning book that couldnt be more dark and terrible, and yet manages to be inspiring. For whatever reasons, I cannot stop thinking about it, and I know Im not alone.