back to the Black Table

One of my most salient memories of my grandfather is of him pissing on the kitchen floor.

I was maybe six or seven, and I was sitting on the counter in my grandparents' kitchen, eating individually wrapped slices of cheese and listening to my dad and my grandpa drink beer at the table and shoot the shit. Even at that age, I guess I knew that my dad and grandpa were both alcoholics. But I also admired them immensely, and I was glad that they were letting me listen in while they went on about the weather and the War and those sonsabitches up in Congress.

At some point in their conversation, my grandpa decided it was time to go to the bathroom, and he began the slow process of rocking back and forth until he was standing up over the linoleum floor, using his dark wooden cane to balance himself. The bathroom was only three or four feet away from the kitchen table. Grandpa began to turn himself in that direction, I looked away for a second and then heard the giant SPLASH sound, like a waterballoon had suddenly dropped out of the ceiling.

I spun my head around, and there was my grandpa, staring down at the puddle of piss that had crashed out from one of his pantlegs so suddenly that I hadn't even seen it. He muttered something to himself, removed the cigarette from his mouth for once and eased back down into his chair, reaching out to take another puckered sip of his beer and look away from my father and me. To look at the wall.

I don't remember who cleaned up the piss, but I remember how I felt when I witnessed the scene - worried, sad, embarrassed, and scared to death.

Reading James Frey's A Million Little Pieces made me feel like I was watching my grandpa piss on the floor all over again. His story is a warts-and-all account of addiction and recovery, beautifully written yet ugly in its details. To say that I enjoyed the book would be incorrect. I experienced it. I went through it with the author. I'll have some of its scenes with me for quite some time.

If you haven't heard of the book, here's the quick-n-easy: 23-year-old guy from a decent family has been an alcoholic for 10 years, a crack addict for three. After waking up on a plane with some teeth missing, a hole in his cheek and no idea how he got there, the guy is enrolled by his parents in a Minnesota rehab clinic, where he rejects notions of giving himself over to a "higher power" and manages to conquer his brutal addictions through friendship, meditation on the Tao and sheer willpower. The guy is the author, now in his thirties. It's his story.

Because the book is a memoir written by a young author with a nontraditional prose style (no line spacing between paragraphs, seemingly random capitalization of words), it is being compared in the press to Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Although both are very good books, they're not similar. Frey's book shares more with Carol Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story, or the first part of Stephen King's On Writing. Like those books, it's literature that deals with recovery, but is not "recovery literature." It is a story about addiction that does not preach nor offer the reader a path away from his or her own addictions. It is simply a story that is being told because it deserves to be told. An honest, emotional story about a classic conflict: man vs. himself.

This is not to say that Frey's novel does not work well as a cautionary tale. Despite the violence, sex and profanity in the book, high school systems around the country would do well to replace their worn-out filmstrips and videos on the dangers of substance abuse with a few choice moments from this memoir. Frey vomiting up parts of his stomach every morning, even after days of sober time, because of the extensive damage he has done to his body. The image of Lilly, the love interest -- the sweet, fragile, wounded Lilly -- sucking an old man's cock for crack mere hours after leaving rehab. And, of course, the devastating last page, which demonstrates quite effectively the abysmally low percentage of addicts who actually recover.

At one point in the novel, Frey catches an episode of ER in which a female heroin addict is taken in by one of the handsome, caring doctors in the hospital. By the end of the episode, she is cleaned up, happy and walking a dog on a bright, sunny day. As he watches the show, he becomes more and more furious at the simplistic depiction of such a complex problem.

Frey's anger has clearly stayed with him. In a society saturated with images of young, beautiful people drinking without mental or physical consequences (when in reality, 10 percent of very unglamorous drinkers consume 60 percent of the alcohol), a society that accepts the marriage of Carmen Electra with a bottle of Budweiser, a society that actually uses the phrase heroin chic to describe a model's beauty, his novel brings home the nasty truths about substance abuse. And he doesn't do this by quoting statistics, (like I just did) or by railing against the moral failings of addicts. He simply makes us feel the way he felt, the way anybody feels who has loved an addict or struggled with his or her own addictions: Worried, sad, embarrassed and scared to death.



Chad Fifer is a Los Angeles-based writer.