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Author James Frey.

Falling to Pieces

James Frey's jaggedly beautiful story of putting it all back together again

By Michael Houghton

Every couple of pages, I keep flipping to the back book flap to look at the author's photo. I want to see if I can make out the scars on his face: the half-moon of puckered tissue from the hole in his cheek, the spider web left over from the crisscrossing contusion slits in his lips, the four front teeth that were shattered from falling face first down a fire escape. I stare into his eyes to see if I can pick out the resolve and the pain and the whiplash of brutality that he endured, the clenched jaw of stubborn determination.

I keep looking because A Million Little Pieces (Anchor Press; $13.95) is the true story of first-time author James Frey's beginning journey of recovery at an alcohol and drug-abuse treatment center. And it is one of the most jaggedly beautiful and defenselessly tender books to be published in years.

Step One: I admit that I am powerless over my addiction and that my life has become unmanageable.

Enter James Frey at age 23. Face shattered and slumped into an airplane seat, he's en route to Chicago, barely conscious, covered in blood and vomit and snot, and has absolutely no memory of how he got there. There's a vague memory of starting to drink a few days ago and brief flashes of drug ingestion in between, but absolutely nothing about the fire escape or being carried onto the plane. In fact, that's all he has remembered of his life for the last few years: a million little dislocated and confusing pieces.

Step Four: I make a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself.

The teeth-grindingly uncomfortable scenes are many and are rendered with writing that stabs into the images with minimalism and a sharp, galloping cadence: the skin-crawling bugs of withdrawal, the horrifying drug-free dental surgery, the all-too-well-pictured daily vomiting of dark blood and intestine bits, the menacing inside of a crack house.

But these are juxtaposed with scenes of such honesty and open tenderness as to induce tears. There are scenes where the most important thing in the world is to hug and feel the accepting love of his brother. Scenes where a pair of slippers is the most wonderful gift he has ever received. Scenes where he can't stand to make his mother cry again.

Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, I try to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all of my life.

A Million Little Pieces is not just another drug story; it is not a preachy "how to quit" manual, nor does it romanticize the brutality it contains. The extreme images are more like an infected wound that must be cleaned to heal. Even in the midst of these episodes, there is a soul-broken, hard-headed beauty that takes away Frey's potential repugnance and paints him with humanity and brittle hopefulness.

As he writes midstory, after taking his moral inventory, "It tells the truth, and as awful as it can be, the truth is what matters."


'A Million Little Pieces' is due to be released in paperback on May 11.

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From the April 7-14, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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