As an English major, it’s fair to say I read a lot of books. Most have been in the literary canon for as long as there has been a literary canon, but that’s not to say there’s no room for improvement. That’s where contemporary writers come in and attempt to fill that space. While most will fade into obscurity by the time our kids are in college, James Frey’s stunning new memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” is something that should be read for generations to come.
Frey’s heartbreakingly honest look at drug and alcohol abuse and the rehabilitation process explores hard to examine truths on the same level as Dostoyevsky and Tim O’Brien.
Frey, a recovering alcoholic/crackhead who’s tried everything in-between, and beyond, tells of his experiences as an addict and the painful, grotesque, angry aspects of conquering addiction.
The most poignant moments in Frey’s story are when he is forced to interact with people close to him, including his parents and a suicidal addict who becomes his girlfriend inside the clinic. Frey’s revelation of how he’s hurt people will strike a chord with anyone who has a heart.
Frey also experiments with language and structure in the book, exploring dialogue, punctuation and the accepted rules of grammar much like Cormac McCarthy, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson. Frey uses no quotation marks and his sentences tend to blend into ranting mobs of words desperate for communication. This, however, does not result in the alienation of the audience. It instead allows them further access into Frey’s thoughts as he’s walking the delicate line of sanity and sobriety after years of abuse.
“A Million Little Pieces” is not for the faint of heart – it is sometimes disgusting, furious, offensive and always honest. The book exists in a constant counterpoint between the morally reprehensible aspects of the characters’ pasts and their sorrowful hope and need to recover.
Frey tells a different story of treatment because he was hostile and unresponsive to the typical Alcoholics Anonymous tactics and decided that he needed to kick his habits on his own terms. This is a story of will and determination, personal demons and public angels. It is about the strength of friendship and the fragility of the human spirit.
Frey’s schooling was in film, not literature, but claims to come from the Norman Mailer school of “I can kick your ass” writers. There is the influence of Bukowski and Hemmingway in his tough, gritty style but also a sensitivity that is usually lacking in such machismo-driven writers.
Frey’s personal life isn’t quite what one might expect from someone who critics claim has just written the “War and Peace” of addiction. He grew up in a well-adjusted upper middle class family, is well educated, but then got progressively more involved with drugs and, eventually, got on the wrong side of the law.
The importance of Frey’s memoir is not its subject matter, but instead the integrity of his voice and storytelling. The originality of his writing and the singularity of his artistic vision is what will keep Frey ahead of his peers and contemporaries.