A Million Little Pieces – At the age of 23, James Frey woke up on a plane to find his front teeth knocked out and his nose broken. He had no idea where the plane was headed nor any recollection of the past two weeks. An alcoholic for ten years and a crack addict for three, he checked into a treatment facility shortly after landing. There he was told he could either stop using or die before he reached age 24. This is Frey’s acclaimed account of his six weeks in rehab.
The electrifying opening of James Frey’s debut memoir, A Million Little Pieces, smash-cuts to the then 23-year-old author on a Chicago-bound plane “covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood.” Wanted by authorities in three states, without ID or any money, his face mangled and missing four front teeth, Frey is on a steep descent from a dark marathon of drug abuse. His stunned family checks him into a famed Minnesota drug treatment center where a doctor promises “he will be dead within a few days” if he starts to use again, and where Frey spends two agonizing months of detox confronting “The Fury” head on:
I want a drink. I want fifty drinks. I want a bottle of the purest, strongest, most destructive, most poisonous alcohol on Earth. I want fifty bottles of it. I want crack, dirty and yellow and filled with formaldehyde. I want a pile of powder meth, five hundred hits of acid, a garbage bag filled with mushrooms, a tube of glue bigger than a truck, a pool of gas large enough to drown in. I want something anything whatever however as much as I can.
One of the more harrowing sections is when Frey submits to major dental surgery without the benefit of anesthesia or painkillers (he fights the mind-blowing waves of “bayonet” pain by digging his fingers into two old tennis balls until his nails crack). His fellow patients include a damaged crack addict with whom Frey wades into an ill-fated relationship, a federal judge, a former championship boxer, and a mobster (who, upon his release, throws a hilarious surf-and-turf bacchanal, complete with pay-per-view boxing). In the book’s epilogue, when Frey ticks off a terse update on everyone, you can almost hear the Jim Carroll Band’s brutal survivor’s lament “People Who Died” kicking in on the soundtrack of the inevitable film adaptation.
The rage-fueled memoir is kept in check by Frey’s cool, minimalist style. Like his steady mantra, “I am an Alcoholic and I am a drug Addict and I am a Criminal,” Frey’s use of repetition takes on a crisp, lyrical quality which lends itself to the surreal experience. The book could have benefited from being a bit leaner. Nearly 400 pages is a long time to spend under Frey’s influence, and the stylistic acrobatics (no quotation marks, random capitalization, left-aligned text, wild paragraph breaks) may seem too self-conscious for some readers, but beyond the literary fireworks lurks a fierce debut. –Brad Thomas Parsons