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James Frey: A Million Little Pieces

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In one comic sequence from the funny, overlooked movie Wet Hot American Summer, a character takes an hour to recover from devastating heartbreak, thanks to the time-compressing device of a montage sequence. In one shot, the character, wearing a wiped-but-hopeful expression and a loose-fitting robe, talks to a circle of peers, both hands wrapped around a coffee mug, a cigarette dangling from his fingers. This sort of image has become an iconic shorthand for the rehab experience, and for author James Frey, that's a problem. An alcoholic at the age of 10 and a crack addict a few years later, the now 10-years-sober Frey has as strong a claim as anyone to knowing the truth about addiction, and he spares no detail in A Million Little Pieces, a memoir about leaving drugs and alcohol behind. He begins at the bottom, waking up in an airplane at the age of 23 with a broken face and little memory of what brought him there. Hurried by concerned parents to an unnamed Minnesota clinic, Frey enters a rehab program, befriends fellow patients, attends lectures, and, except for a forbidden love affair and a reflexive annoyance with authority, plays by the institution's rules. But for a confirmed non-believer in any sort of higher power, cleaning toilets comes easier than subscribing to the 12-step belief system at the clinic's core. The tension in A Million Little Pieces comes less from Frey's temptation to indulge his addictions than from his resistance to serenity prayers, models of addiction based on disease, and other rehab staples. His own approach to recovery boils down to three simple words: "Don't do it." Emerging from the depths of drug use with a mantra suspiciously similar to the Reagan-era "Just Say No" campaign would probably have been enough to gain Frey notoriety even if he hadn't spent much of the period leading up to Pieces' release taking swipes at Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers, and expressing his literary ambitions in terms that sound Norman Mailer-like in their self-regard. (That's a pretty weird expectation to put on a memoir, even one that doesn't have the words "staggering genius" in its title.) It remains to be seen whether A Million Little Pieces will someday be seen as the first effort of a great writer–not counting Frey's screenplay for the David Schwimmer vehicle Kissing A Fool–but the book doesn't lend itself to easy dismissal. Written in a punchy, descriptive prose style inherited from Ernest Hemingway and Bret Easton Ellis (and an approach to capitalization borrowed from the 18th century), Pieces is immediately engrossing, and it becomes more harrowing as it goes along. Frey has a gift for drawing vivid characters with only a few details, zeroing in on the tender spots that their tough-guy personas can't quite conceal, while never losing sight of their hideous habits or the fact that most will return to them. Pieces may be the first book to use the words "hug" and "motherfucker" in equal measure; while Frey is never quite successful in discrediting the rehab process, he does effectively rob it of sentimentality. With its overwhelming failure rate, those hugs start to seem less like gestures of solidarity than fragile shelters from the storm.