Descent of Man

Into the Frey: The narrator is a substance-abuse superstar.

In the substance abuser, the heroic and the dissolute are often intertwined. Destroying yourself requires prodigious feats of consumption: How many? How much? How low can you go? At the beginning of his new memoir, A Million Little Pieces, James Frey is about as low as a person can get, covered in blood, urine, and vomit, missing four front teeth, with a couple of black eyes and a Frankenstein-monster-stitched wound through his cheek. He’s on an airplane (who made the decision to let him on?) after friends intervened and packed him off to meet his parents, and then on to an unnamed Minneapolis clinic, recognizable as Hazelden. Not that he’s committed to recovery. “I want to wipe my existence straight off the map,” Frey writes. “Straight off the fucking map.”

Frey has definitely demonstrated a special gift for dissolution. He’s a substance-abuse superstar, with a champion’s braggadocio to see anything as a personal challenge. Root canals to replace his missing teeth? Bring ’em on—and without painkillers. Another inmate tries to hassle Frey about cleaning the bathroom: The man soon finds himself cleaning the bathroom floor with his face. Any lily-livered twelve-step bullshit is met with massive verbal counterforce. If Frey is this belligerent sober, imagine him drunk.

His machismo earns him respect in his new surroundings, much as it must have in his old ones. A Million Little Pieces is essentially a prison drama: Oz, the treatment center. There’s a fishing-boat captain, a federal judge, and a former lightweight champion of the world, along with a supporting cast of crack addicts and family men, all bonded by their thwarted need. Frey makes friends with a man named Leonard (as it turns out, he’s a Las Vegas mob boss who’s developed a crack problem) partly by threatening to beat the hell out of him, and the two become inseparable, the king and prince of the treatment center. Leonard eventually—and to this reader, somewhat incredibly—adopts him as a son.

The few women who appear here tend to be statuesque atop their pedestals, often bathed in otherworldly light. Lilly, his main female foil, is a former prostitute with a heart of gold, with whom, in flagrant violation of the rules, he strikes up a friendship that blossoms into romance; she’s a Mary Magdalene figure who helps James by needing help so much herself.

Frey does recovery his way, confronting the powers that be and winning every time. He’s his own hero, an Ayn Rand of addiction, stronger than crack, stronger than a highball glass of whiskey. “Whose Rules are you bound by?” someone asks him well into his recovery. “My own,” he replies. Always, there’s a sense of righteousness, of having been wronged, of trusting no one but himself. “I refuse to turn my life and my will over to anything or anyone, much less something I don’t believe in.”

Though Frey has a non serviam attitude toward the twelve-step deity, he has a taste for slogans and catchphrases. He happens on a copy of the Tao, which becomes one of the secrets of his recovery. “This little book feeds me,” he writes. “It feeds me food I didn’t know existed, feeds me food I wanted to taste, and have never tasted before, food that will nourish me and keep me full and keep me alive.”

As a stylist, Frey is a primitive. He’s sublimated his appetite for strong sensation into an addiction to extreme grammar. He delivers a hearty fuck-off to the rules of punctuation. All the lines, paragraphs or no, are tamped right up to the left margin. Capitals pop up Randomly according to a Logic known only to Frey. Anything worth saying once (“I start to shake. Shake shake shake”) is worth saying three or four times, boosting the emotion with repetition. Frey aims for a kind of rough poetry that can be sentimental but that somehow suits his elemental struggle. “What once was green is brown,” he writes. “What once had leaves now has none. It’s cold and it’s winter and the World has gone to sleep.”

It’s never clear, unlike a lot of descent-and-return addiction memoirs, what Frey fell from. One wants to hear more about his life and milleu before addiction. When he says he’s a criminal early in the book, it feels like a boast, without any real moral force or culpability. But when he provides an accounting of his crimes late in the book, we see him unmasked as a garden-variety habitual miscreant. It’s a bit of a letdown.

There’s surprisingly little evolution here. We can admire Frey for his fierceness, his extremity, his solitary virtue, the angry ethics of his barroom tribe, and his victory over his furies. But it’s not clear by the end of the book what he’s become, other than a non-drinking, non-crack-smoking, non-crime-committing version of what he’d been before. Not a likable person to start with, Frey doesn’t become one—his hard life has made him hard. It’s a compelling book, but one that makes a reader wonder about the meaning of redemption.

In her weepy new melodrama, Family History, Dani Shapiro leaves no doubt as to what Rachel Jensen, her narrator, is in danger of losing. “The first couple of days after we brought Josh home are a time I cherish,” Rachel says about her son, “hours filled with so much joy that, if I could have harvested that joy, it would have lasted me for the rest of my life.”

Elsewhere, she says, “Some people were able to take this for granted—this beauty, this bounty. But no matter how many years we had been together, I still felt it as something amazing, thoroughly undeserved. How had I gotten so lucky?”

Having pushed the wagon to the very top of the highest hill, Shapiro lets it go. Rachel’s teenage daughter’s rebellion (first sign: bellybutton ring) blossoms into full-blown psychosis. Josh has an accident that threatens his health. Accusations fly, jeopardizing her long, mostly happy marriage to Ned, a struggling artist.

This is a fast-paced and readable book, but it feels slighter than it had to be, especially given the intensity of the plot. It’s furnished with a predictable cast of competently drawn near-stereotypes—Waspy, hard-drinking real-estate brokers, an overbearing Jewish mom, wealthy friends to whom everything seems to come easy. Which is not in itself a crime of fiction—such people exist, after all. But here they feel like puppets, dropped in and yanked out in the service of Shapiro’s hair-raising plot. (The descriptive furniture, too, can feel a little McMansiony. For a family dinner, for instance, Rachel uncorks “one of our only really good bottles of Chardonnay.”)

Finally, however, the problem with this novel is Rachel. She takes steps to save her family, but these seem secondary to her real purpose in this book, which is to observe and to suffer—she’s an emotional barometer, built to register the changes in her surroundings, rather than a three-dimensional character.

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More in Books and the Mix

A Million Little Pieces
By James Frey.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; 382 pages; $22.95.

Family History
By Dani Shapiro.
Knopf; 269 pages; $23.

Descent of Man