The Coldest Turkey

I’ve just read, on my wife Nina’s recommendation, the book A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. Here is the first paragraph:

I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin. I lift my hand to feel my face. My front four teeth are gone, I have a hole in my cheek, my nose is broken and my eyes are swollen nearly shut. I open them and I look around and I’m in the back of a plane and there’s no one near me. I look at my clothes and my clothes are covered with a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood.

The book is the story of Frey’s six weeks, at age 23, at an elite detoxification clinic in Minneapolis. It is a horrifying tale. I have known an awful lot of drug addicts and alcoholics in my day, and have peered over the edge of that abyss at times myself, but Mr. Frey, I have to say, raises the bar. He has, by the beginning of this story, been a dedicated alcoholic for ten years, and an obsessive crackhead for three. He has spent every day for years pumping booze and drugs into himself until he blacks out. He has destroyed every relationship he has ever had with anyone, is wanted in three states for various antisocial acts, and has brought himself to the uttermost brink of death.

While many might have told this story in a luridly self-pitying way, Frey’s book is written in a simple, flatly declarative style that conveys utter exhaustion and the nearness of despair. Far from feeling sorry for himself, though, as is the fashion these days, Frey refuses to abdicate responsibility for his predicament – refuses even to see alcoholism as a disease – and will have none of the 12-step programs, surrender to Higher Powers, etc., that the people overseeing his recovery insist are the only way that anyone has ever succeeded.

What is truly striking about this story is that it is at once a shameless confession of sin – an excruciating account of humiliation, self-abasement, and the loss of every shred of dignity – and an astonishingly uplifting tale of almost superhuman redemption. Mr. Frey, having done an excellent job of making the case that he is about as utterly worthless and despicable as a person can be, then goes on to reveal himself as capable of acts of bravery, defiance, commitment, and self-discipline that are almost beyond belief. There is an old saying in esoteric teaching that “the angels themselves bow down before a developed Man,” and Frey makes it very clear that despite his Fall to the lowest depths of human degradation, he is just that Man. There is a pridefulness to the story – Frey does, after all, by the mere strength of his will, do what his counselors say has never been (and simply cannot be) done – but if it is boastful it is the most backhanded sort of boasting you will ever see.

It is an extraordinary story, and, I warn you, hard to lay aside once you begin.

Related content from Sphere

One Trackback

  1. By waka waka waka » Blog Archive » Vino and Veritas on January 28, 2006 at 12:00 am

    […] Having written a post earlier about James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces, I probably should remark on the recent brouhaha, which you would have had to have been in a persistent vegetative state not to have noticed. […]