In this novel, James Frey, describes the inner experience of a twenty-three year old alcoholic and drug addict who is brought by his parents to a rehabilitation clinic in Minnesota. James tells his story of withdrawal, encounters with the other inmates and care staff. He recounts his progress through the 12 step recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). He does not spare us the gory details. There is plenty of blood, urine and vomit each day. His aggression and humour ensure that we are led on a roller-coaster journey of pathos, violence, serenity and fear both inside his head and in the clinic. Frey wants us to understand the mind of an addict. Perhaps he succeeds.
During the story he makes new friends, especially with Leonard, the crime boss, who rescues him from self-destruction but also with Joanne, the one social worker who seems to understand and trust him. The clinic arranges for the addicts to meet the parents and guardians and James bravely tries to reconnect with the parents whom he abandoned so long ago. The ambiguity of these encounters is not glossed over and we are left wondering if the reconciliation is real and long-lasting.
Perhaps the most poignant relationship in the novel, is the friendship between James and Lilly, a pretty crack addict, brought to the clinic by her grandmother. The two addicts learn to support and respect each other. After Lilly hears that her grandmother has cancer, she breaks down and flees. In one of the most dramatic moments of the novel, James defies all the odds to run after and rescue her from a “crack-house”. This act of love saved Lilly once but the real tragedy of the novel is that it is not enough to save her twice.
All through his recovery, James furiously resists the 12 step program as he refuses to believe in a “Higher Power”. Nonetheless, by having to formulate his arguments against the program he enters into real communication with other human beings who are different from him. He learns to appreciate the beauty and silence of nature in the park around the Clinic. He drinks in silence and peace from it. Somebody gives him a book of Taoist sayings. He ponders the deeper meaning behind the apparent paradoxes. It seems that Taoism offers him a sort of Emptiness that functions like the Higher Power in the 12 step recovery program. James insists that only his decisions will heal him and bring him recovery. As soon as he is released, he asks his brother to give him money to buy a drink which he inhales and pours down the sink. He is able to say no.
At the end of the novel it is clear that James Frey is no longer an alcoholic or drug addict. However it is not yet clear if James has become an “other-centred” person or not.
There was significant controversy about this book in the States about fifteen years ago where is was originally marketed as a “memoir” rather than a novel. Many people blamed James Frey for dishonesty since he made up some details and added them into his story as if they really happened. Once you read this novel as he first intended, you do not need to worry about the details. It is still a wonderful story about addiction and recovery!