By Jennifer Reese
April 25, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Not just anyone can become a truly wretched addict — it’s far too strenuous. Enduring the sexual humiliations, daily vomiting, ruined relationships, bed-wetting, falls from fire escapes, and trips to jail requires staggering energy and dedication. James Frey, Cleveland-born son of nice middle-class parents, had what it took, and then some. Between drunken binges — a habit he picked up at age 10 — he found time to sniff glue, smoke crack, go to college, steal, consort with hookers, assault a priest, and get arrested a dozen times.

A Million Little Pieces, his big, uneven, and thoroughly engrossing memoir, begins when, at the age of 23, he awoke on a plane with no idea how he got there or where he was headed. He had a hole in his cheek and four front teeth missing; his clothes were covered with ”a colorful mixture of spit, snot, urine, vomit and blood.” His parents met him at the airport and drove him to Hazelden, the legendary Minnesota treatment center. In this brutal and curiously inspiring volume, he tells the story of his time there — of his friendship with an avuncular mobster, his romance with a lovely crack addict, and his struggle for sobriety.

Withdrawal from addiction as profound as Frey’s isn’t for sissies, and he doesn’t gloss over the gory details. In his first days, he vomited bile and blood, suffered violent hallucinations, shook, sweat, and lost control of his bowels. He wasn’t a good candidate for ”recovery”: He was unwilling to take the 12 steps and repelled by AA. ”I’m not going to live in fear of alcohol or drugs, and I’m not going to spend my time sitting and talking with people who live in fear of them,” he told a counselor. More than once he almost walked out. But a decade later, Frey, unlike most of his companions at the clinic, is sober, not to mention alive. How did he do it?

For Frey, sobering up boiled down to grit. ”It has nothing to do with God,” he writes, ”or Twelve of anything other than the twelve beats of my heart. Yes or no. It is a simple decision. Yes or no.”

Hard-bitten existentialism bristles on every page. All the ferocious energy and will Frey once devoted to self-destruction he turned toward fixing himself. Frey’s prose is muscular and tough, ideal for conveying extreme physical anguish and steely determination, though it isn’t quite flexible enough to bring to life the troubled people he met. (He is helpless when he tries to describe women.)

But this is a small thing. Too many contemporary autobiographies outline all the ways the vagaries of life (Daddy, race, sexual abuse) shape character. Frey believes that character shapes life, and believes it with a vengeance. Teasing apart the motivations for his drinking and drug use is a parlor game for which Frey has no patience. ”People in here, people everywhere, they all want to take their own problems, usually created by themselves, and try to pass them off on someone or something else,” he says in one fruitless therapy session. ”I know my Mother and Father did the best they could and gave me the best they could and loved me the best they could and if anything, they are victims of me.” When was the last time you read anything like that in a memoir?B+

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