I have rarely trusted recommendations, least of all when it comes to books. When I was told that this was a memoir of a drug addict detailing his journey of rehabilitation towards sobriety, it was hard for me to reserve judgment and not to succumb to preconceptions. Brushing those aside, I decided to give it a shot.
A bit of backgrounder on the author, James Frey, revealed that this was his debut novel. He did go on to write a few more books after this, the most notable being ‘My friend Leonard’, a sequel which picks up where this book trailed off. The author has written screenplays for two movies and ended up directing one of them. With a few more books in the pipeline, things look bright.
All my suspicions quickly dissipate as I start reading. The in-your-face attitude of the author is rather amusing and novel, the liberal use of profanity is scandalous at first but looks extremely apt for the situation.
The story begins with James waking up on a plane. He has a missing row of teeth, a hole in his cheek, a broken nose and absolutely no recollection of what had happened to him or how he got there. He is physically broken, and in his mind, a wreck. On landing, his parents pick him up and escort him home. He is told that he collapsed face down through a fire exit. Rehab is the obvious choice and he seems to be ready for it, subconsciously aware that this is his only choice if he was to survive.
Twenty three year old James has been an alcoholic, crackhead and a criminal, for thirteen years. For the past four years, he has been suffering from blackouts every single night, induced by crack and alcohol. For the uninitiated, crack is cooked up cocaine and widely considered as one of the filthiest drugs known to mankind. He leads us through his world, a world full of extreme emotions. Rehab means being bound by certain house rules, which are in contradiction with his anti-institution mechanism. It means living without the substances that have been a constant in his system for a better part of his existence. It means trying to survive without drugs for the next, undefined number of days. That looks like an uphill struggle, considering the longest sobriety streak he had managed ever since he could remember was six hours.
He effortlessly pans into his would-be world. The hospital whites blind him and withdrawal symptoms kick in. He has nightmares, wakes up to violently expel sugary meals which appear to be foreign particles to his stomach. The most enduring and differentiating feature of the book is his stream of consciousness style of writing, where he refrains from using punctuation for direct discourse. It is confusing to begin with but once you are in the flow of things, it makes for an uninterrupted, brisk, smooth read. I begin to take up to it. It perfectly serves the premise on which the book is based. It is like a jagged pavement line running through a city, it does not care whether you like it or not. It has to ebb and flow when it wants to and had every right to cut off abruptly. Essential, obtrude and compelling, the verbal strategy used here is extremely crude, caution thrown to the winds, with no pretext whatsoever. You tend to reach out to him, every morning drifting clumsily into the night, very well aware of the fact that the next day will be a minor variation of the one he has just experienced. It helps brace us up for the brutal facial reconstruction process he has to endure, including a dual root-canal operation without anaesthesia.