When James Frey goes for coffee, he goes for 10 cups. the 33-year-old writer of ”A Million Little Pieces,” a memoir about kicking crack, booze, and almost every illicit substance in between, doesn’t chew one piece of Nicorette gum. He rips through the whole pack. (”Want some?” he teases, with a back-alley leer. ”See how it makes you feel?”)
It’s always been this way for Frey: During his drinking days, he was never satisfied with a glass of wine at dinner. ”I don’t want just one drink,” he says. ”I want 30. I want oblivion. I want to destroy s—, get in fights, hurt myself. And there’s nothing good about that.”
Frey got drunk for the first time when he was 10 years old, at his suburban Cleveland home, while his parents were out one evening. By age 15, he’d tried coke, acid, and crystal meth and was dealing. And by the time he was a junior at Denison University — ”a place where wealthy white kids went to get f—ed up” — cocaine had Frey by the scruff of his neck. Two years later, in an ugly climax to a two-week bender, he fell face-first down a fire escape. Broken, ripped, and wanted in three states on possession charges, he showed up at Hazelden, a rehab center in Minnesota, with four busted teeth and a nickel-sized hole in his cheek. ”James had hit bottom, and he knew there was nowhere to go from where he was,” says his mother, Lynne. ”As determined as he was to destroy his life, he was determined to save it.”
His memoir is an account of his efforts to stay sober without the help of God or any 12-step approach. ”If I can do that, I can do anything I want if I just want it badly enough,” he says. ”Whatever I do, I put my whole self into it. Like Rocky did in ‘Rocky III’ when he had to fight Clubber Lang.” Which helps explain the comically hostile pronouncement tattooed on his left arm: ”F.T.B.S.I.T.T.T.D.” Or rather: F— the Bulls—, It’s Time to Throw Down.
It’s this sort of unself-conscious, over-the-top declaration that has earned Frey an unusual amount of attention for a first-time author whose book has yet to hit stores (look for it April 15). He raised some eyebrows in the publishing community with a February interview in The New York Observer in which he blithely trash-talked his rivals and announced, ”I’m going to try to write the best book of my generation.” But though Frey may sound like a punk — or, worse still, a shameless self-promoter — there are two caveats to consider. The first is that he’s far from the only person who thinks he’s got talent: The book boasts effusive blurbs from Pat Conroy and Bret Easton Ellis. And director Gus Van Sant, who is circling the movie rights to the book, calls Frey ”horribly honest and funny in a young-guard Eggers and Wallace sort of way.”
The other caveat is that, in conversation, Frey doesn’t come across as a guy who says outrageous things to get attention. He comes across as someone who says whatever’s on his mind, however inflammatory, for the same reason he drinks a pitcher of coffee in a sitting and stuffs his mouth with Nicorette. He just can’t help himself.