A Million Little Pieces
Memory is a tricky thing. Memoirs are even trickier. Americans read them--gobble 'em up like M&M's, in fact--because they offer true stories. Yet we have to know they're not 100 percent accurate. Maybe not even 50 percent. Put aside tiresome philosophical questions about the nature of truth and just note that most people can't really remember a conversation from yesterday, so accurately reconstructing the events surrounding your recovery from crack addiction must be nearly impossible. But that's the task James Frey sets for himself in his new memoir, A Million Little Pieces.
The book's vivid opening chapter offers what may become the most widely quoted first page of 2003. Frey wakes up on an airplane. He doesn't know how he got there or where he's going. He does know he's not feeling so hot: "My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken, and my eyes are swollen nearly shut." His clothes are covered in "a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit, and blood." Turns out Frey was on a two-week bender that ended in a face-crushing fall from a fire escape. He's headed for rehab and a last chance to save his life.
That Minnesota treatment center is where most of the book unfolds as Frey struggles to end his dependence on booze, crack, pills, acid, PCP, and even glue and gasoline. The author does not spare the grim details of addiction and recovery--the endless vomiting, the flashbacks to his cruelty as a drug dealer, and his furious urge to hurt himself and those around him, including his own parents.
Forget gritty. This is ugly, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, skin-crawling stuff. It's also incredibly gripping, in part because of Frey's powerful writing. His style is nothing revolutionary--just Hemingway cranked to the usual postmodern max, full of staccato sentences that scorn such frills as commas. But it works magic here, allowing Frey to tell his dramatic story without descending into melodrama.
But is it honest? To paraphrase James Joyce, some stories make us feel so good that they should also make us suspicious. Into that category must go some episodes in this book, including the author's confrontations with various tough guys. Question: How many badasses will back down from a skinny crack addict named Frey? Answer: Pretty much all of them. Still, even if this is only one possible version of Frey's escape from addiction, it's a damned compelling one.