A Million Little Pieces
Nan A. Talese / Doubleday
US Hardcover First
Publication Date: 04-15-2003
385 Pages; $22.95
Date Reviewed: 05-05-03
Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2003
Words can hotwire the writer's eyes to the reader's brain. The better the language, the more powerful the connection. James Frey (pronounced 'fray', as in battle), strips it down to pure muscle in his rehab memoir of craving and recovery 'A Million Little Pieces'. Frey knows a thing or two about addiction, and he gets the reader hooked early and hard. This is one of the most gloriously readable books you're going to pull down off the shelf this year. The compelling, page-turning story and the detailed portraits of his fascinating fellow addicts would be winners in any storytelling arena. Frey has an original take on the drug and alcohol addiction that eschews the twelve-step tradition for a tough simple choice. Call it "Just say fuck no." His story is full of actual drama, not pumped-up proselytizing. The arc of his book has the feel of a great novel. But most importantly, Frey's prose is a staccato, rhythmic burst of excitement. His words do all the work. You just get the pure pleasure of reading.
Frey's memoir starts when he wakes up on a plane, not knowing where he is, where he's been or where he's going. He's missing four teeth, has a hole in his cheek and his clothes are covered in blood, spit and vomit. Arriving at the airport, he finds out his parents have booked him into the oldest rehab center in the nation. It's got the highest success rate of any center - a mere seventeen percent. Frey goes through a series of medical evaluations and is told at the age of twenty-three that if he wishes to see twenty four, he'll have to give up a ten year addiction to alcohol and a three year addiction to crack. He's in bad shape and inclined to go right back out and commit suicide by drug abuse. Though the outcome is obvious, Frey keeps the readers in suspense by convincingly putting us into his own addled, addicted mind. It's a prose performance that few will forget, writing that rivets the reader to page after painful page.
There's a lot of pain in 'A Million Little Pieces'. In one memorable scene, Frey is forced to undergo a dual root canal sans anesthetic. It makes 'The Marathon Man' look like lightweight reading. But Frey gets readers past the pain with terse, funny prose that plumbs the depths but lets the reader smile at his non-stop poetic profanity. Not since Lenny Bruce got behind the microphone has a writer used invective with such flair and humor. That's because Frey laces his profanity through descriptions of events that are actually profane. In one scene, a man confesses his ultimate drunken degradation, an experience that gives the word cringeworthy a couple of new dimensions. Throughout the confession, one of his fellow inmates laughs, and even Frey objects. But when the whole confession is over, the unfeeling patient comes back to the absurdity - and allows everyone the relief of humor. Frey is terse and direct. He never beats around the bush and he never embellishes. Every word is pure power. At times, experiencing his prose becomes the reading equivalent of hearing the chords for 'Satisfaction' for the very first time. His words positively ring.
'A Million Little Pieces' also thrives on Frey's concise portraits of his fellow inmates, from Miles, the sorrowful black Federal circuit court judge who made an ill-advised trip to the bar to Leonard, the honorable gangster - a highly made man - who befriends James upon his arrival. The portraits are carefully layered with a very stylized, novelistic feel. As I read this book, I kept calling it a novel in my mind. It had the cohesion and the power of a novel, and none of the false self-importance or clumsiness of an autobiography. There's not a hint of manipulation in his portraits. When Roy, one of the inmates, takes an instant dislike to James, it's not surprising. The situation has the raw feel of people under pressure, forced to co-exist with their own faults writ large before their fellows. Roy's ultimate fate is one of the most powerful scenes in the book - there, it just happened, I actually started typing the word "novel" instead of "book".
While not denying that AA has done worlds of good, Frey takes his own path, and his reasons for doing so make it seem eminently plausible that a few years on, a whole new generation could escape addiction using his Big Blue Book. He hotwires the reader directly into his mental struggle, one that will seem familiar to anyone who has every struggled with an addiction to anything.
'A Million Little Pieces' may not be a book for all readers, but those who give it a chance will be very surprised at how readable it is. I was more than a bit leery. Frey struggled with his editors to preserve his own rather unique take on typography and paragraphs, but the end result is a book that is nothing less than a page-turner. He verges on the poetic with his repetition and his rhythm, but never gets precious, even when love rears its ugly head. The profanity may put some readers off, but once you get past the 2.54 words per page on average (his publishers figured it out for him), you'll find it's effective not affected. Pick it up in the bookstore and start on page one. There's little chance you won't end up on page two a lot faster than you would have thought to. 'A Million Little Pieces' reads like a propulsive thriller, and in many ways that's precisely what it is.