A Heart-Stopping Work of Sentimentality

How James Frey’s addiction memoir fails to come clean.

Even though America has long been synonymous with self-improvement, our republic of letters is a landscape littered with self-ruination. Horatio Alger is long gone; in his wake, a series of anxious, ambition-drained substance abusers have set up shop—from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Jackson to Nelson Algren, William Burroughs, and Frederick Exley. The latest such bleary-eyed self-celebrant is James Frey, a hard-bitten soul of 33 with a blunt tale of the various substances that nearly did him in at the still more tender age of 23. In a much-buzzed-over interview with the New York Observer in February, Frey announced that he was aiming to be “the greatest writer of my generation” and gleefully laid into the self-involved excesses of fiction impresario David Foster Wallace and fellow extreme-memoirist Dave Eggers. (To drive home the force of his ambition, he even tattooed his arms with the acronym FTBSITTTD—for “Fuck the Bullshit, It’s Time To Throw Down.”)

Now he’s thrown it all down in A Million Little Pieces, his just-published addiction memoir. “I have a murderous rage and I need to kill. Kill my heart, kill my mind, kill myself,” he tells us. That’s his description of the crack, booze, glue- and gas-sniffing binge that landed him in the Hazelden rehab facility. A Million Little Pieces never gets much more subtle than this: It’s an ill-defined howl against just about everything. Frey’s pain is a force so consuming that it’s capitalized—The Fury.

The point of all the howling? Frey wants to offer a corrective to what he sees as the pieties (and possibility) of recovery—and to grant us an unvarnished glimpse of the gritty junky life. When a recovered rock star lectures his ward at Hazelden, Frey thinks to himself, “The life of the Addict is always the same. …. There is no future and no escape. There is only an obsession. … To make light of it, brag about it, or revel in the mock glory of it is not in any way, shape or form related to its truth, and that is all that matters, the truth.”

This equation of “the truth” with the junky world’s degradations is the corollary of Frey’s view that all recovery theology is falsely comforting bullshit. It’s also what has already won the book praise from critics like John Homans, in New York, who marvels at Frey’s textbook-rebel penchant for “confronting the powers that be and winning every time.” But there’s nothing new or compelling (let alone heroic) about this pose: It is, in many ways, the classic arc of the genre Frey claims he’s boldly renovated—the conversion memoir. From St. Augustine to Rousseau to Dave Eggers and Elizabeth Wurtzel, readers of memoirs are invited to marvel at the incorrigible badness of a narrator as a sort of trust-exercise: Surely someone who conceals so little of their unpleasant behavior can’t be lying. It also lends an important badass aura to his case against the soft-focus spirituality of the 12-step world; Frey’sstory, he wants us to think, is the act of an atheist cursing God in a church.

To be sure, A Million Little Pieces is successfully horrific: The physical aspects of Frey’s suffering are given in grisly detail; so hell-bent is he on showing us the unpleasant truth of his condition that he writes at great length about coughing it up from his insides.

But for all its flourishes of can-you-take-this-punk realism, A Million Little Pieces is as sentimental as any gauzy self-help tale of overcoming childhood traumas; the only difference is that Frey has structured the pertinent spiritual witness to speak to his own creation myth—that of the macho badass with a heart of gold. Consider, for example, Leonard, Frey’s closest friend at Hazelden, a violent Vegas mob kingpin who turns out to be a world-class softie—he even arranges to serve as Frey’s unofficial surrogate dad. Shortly after arriving at the clinic, Frey decides to run away, even though his physical exam has indicated that if he keeps doing drugs he’ll soon die. “I have my sentence,” he announces dramatically. Leonard, with whom Frey has already had a series of turf-related run-ins, follows him out the clinic door. They trade profane jibes and manly dares—and then Frey is won over by Leonard’s eyes: “There is an anger and there is a hardness and there is a resolve [in his eyes]. There is truth, and that is all that matters. The truth.”

Indeed, sentimentality is often the enchanted mirror into which the practiced nihilist preens. After all, the nihilist worldview holds that most things are beneath the self, and the sentimentalist concludes that most things are about the self—the point being in either case to keep the narrating ego at center stage. So, while Frey begins the vast majority of his flat, pain-ridden sentences with the word “I,” many of them resolve into emotional set pieces reminiscent of Victorian melodrama. Not surprisingly, the James Frey at the end of the book is pretty much the same furious bastard we meet at its outset—tempered now by sobriety and a certain dorm-room infatuation with Taoism.

All this might lead you to ask an obvious question: Is it possible for an addiction memoir to be about something larger than the narrating self? Well, yes, actually: For an antidote to A Million Little Pieces, turn to the aforementioned Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. Exley’s memoir-cum-novel is certainly the best modern chronicle of an addictive personality—and probably the best modern memoir, period. Like Frey’s book, A Fan’s Notes opens with a brutal physical wake-up call, in which Exley suffers a fit of alcohol poisoning that he’s convinced is a fatal heart attack. It details the narrator’s fierce rejection of the world around him, most especially including his family and closest friends.

But Exley, unlike Frey, was able to recognize in his own desperate misery a self-knowledge that pointed beyond his own raging need (and needful rages). He made it plain that any addict’s low dishonesties and self-deceptions are of a piece with the knowing, shabbier compromises that make up any ordinary adult life. He knows, as well, that to confess all is not, by a long shot, to be forgiven all: “I had lived long enough in the world to see that … there are certain things from which, on this side of heaven, men should not be absolved.” The book is finally about the opposite: the refusal of distinction, the realization that one’s heartbreak, alcoholism, or dysfunction confers no special truth. It’s a point Exley conveys through his very writing style (much as Frey inflates his take-all-comers recovery saga with randomly capitalized Nouns). Poised at the brink of an early sordid descent into alcoholism, Exley pointedly refuses to deliver the self-same graphic vérité flourishes that Frey relishes: “My dizzying descent into bumhood is the usual bleak fantasy, so I will omit the details.”

Exley also denied himself the cheap consolation of romanticizing his afflictions: He took everything about his life seriously and himself not seriously at all. Most of all, he knew a life’s story could never be squared with something as stark and unequivocal as “the truth”—whether or not the truth was all that mattered. That’s a saving wisdom all its own, even if it won’t fit onto a tattoo.