The book opens with the narrator, James Frey, waking up on an airplane. He is bleeding, missing four teeth, and has a broken nose. He doesn’t know how he got these injuries or where he is going. When he asks, a stewardess informs him that he is flying to Chicago, and that two men and a doctor put him on the plane. When the plane lands, James is unable to disembark without assistance, despite his best efforts. James’s parents are waiting for him in the airport, and his appearance upsets them. They tell him that a concerned friend of his contacted them and that his injuries were the result of a fall down a fire escape. James has no recollection of this. They drive him to their summer cabin, and on the way he makes his father to buy him cigarettes and several bottles of wine. At the cabin, James’s parents express their concern and love for him. Once they are asleep, James finds a bottle of whiskey and drinks until he passes out.
In the next scene, James’s parents and brother drive him to a rehabilitation clinic. On his arrival, an intake worker informs him that the clinic has the highest success rate of any similar institution in the world. This makes little impression on James, who dully listens to the rules of the clinic. These include not speaking to any of the female patients, except to say hello. A counselor interviews James to determine what substances he abuses. James’s answers are general, but they indicate that he takes every substance he can get his hands on as often as possible. When left alone for a moment, James begins hallucinating and loses control of his bodily functions. An attendant is forced to sedate him. When James comes to, he is given pills to assist the process of withdrawal. A nurse directs him to the lounge, where he can smoke and watch television. A fellow patient starts an argument with him, because James is sitting in the man’s favorite chair. The medication starts to take effect, and James begins to lose muscle control. When the nurse leaves the room, the other patient drags the helpless James to the floor and claims the chair.
The next morning, James wakes up alone on the lounge floor. He manages to get back to his room, where an orderly serves him breakfast. James cannot hold down his food. A doctor comes to treat his injuries. James can’t have any painkillers, so the doctor must rebreak his nose without them. When he goes to get his next dose of pills from the dispensary, James meets and speaks to a girl named Lilly. Retiring to his room, the pills again knock him out. When James next wakes, he vomits. This is accompanied by a moment of clarity in which he remembers episodes from the days leading up to his fire escape fall—they involve him abusing crack and glue and blacking out several times. Out in the hallway, James encounters Lilly again. Lilly explains that she is the 22-year-old daughter of a heroin addict, forced into prostitution at a young age. She is addicted to crack and Quaaludes. A man named Roy arrives to escort James to his unit. Along the way, he again explains the rules of the facility to James and stresses their importance. He also warns James about talking to Lilly, which is a violation of the rules.
James has three roommates—Larry, Warren, and John. John introduces himself with a bizarre business card, bearing the words, John Everett. Sexual Ninja. San Francisco and the World. He openly tells James of his cocaine addiction and penchant for anal sex. The men go to lunch, and James sits alone. On the way back, James meets Ken, his recovery counselor. Ken also interviews James and hears about the laundry list of substances James has abused over his life, as well as an account of James’s crimes. James explains that he has outstanding criminal charges in three states. Ken encourages him to face these charges and commit to the idea of sobriety. James cannot make any promises.
Although the character James Frey is very distant and hard for others to access, the writer James Frey is painfully direct—and is revealed to a great extent in the very method he uses to tell his story. The length of the sentences (generally quite short), the repetitions of words and phrases, and the sporadic capitalization of nouns show Frey’s blatant disregard for “the rules,” a theme that runs throughout the book. The use of paragraph breaks rather than conventional quotation marks without identifying the speaker shows that Frey is less interested in who is doing the speaking than in what is being said. The combined effect of these techniques is a sort of extreme first-person point of view. These are Frey’s thoughts, raw. If he wants to say the same thing five times in a row, he does it. In removing the dialogue tags, Frey manages to claim the words of others. Their comments become words he hears in his head. The style falls somewhere between brilliantly independent and profoundly self-indulgent, but there is no mistaking the fact that this is James Frey’s take on the world.
From the very start, James does not rely on the goodwill of others. His interactions with the flight attendant show that he is a man who is not used to allowing others to sense any form of weakness in him. He prefers to let the world think of him as a hardened tough who can take care of himself. Although he is sure the flight attendant feels sorry for him and is smiling at him as she is speaking, he refuses to look at her. Later, when his mother tries to hug him, he rebukes her, pushing her away, indicating that his desire to remain detached is severe enough to extend to members of his immediate family. James believes that it’s better if no one gets too close to him, since he views himself as a destructive, damaging force with very little to contribute to anyone’s life.
Another facet of this self-reliance is bravado. James thinks nothing of standing up to a potentially dangerous addict in the clinic lounge, and never considers the rule about not speaking to women when Lilly speaks to him. He uses this bravado as a defense mechanism. It allows him to go through life without really getting too close to anyone and also gives others permission to think him a crass, uncaring individual. Not even the severity of his condition and addiction can crack the facade. James only shows a minor sense of alarm that he doesn’t remember what happened to his face or how he got on the plane. It’s just another blackout on just another day. He treats his vomiting the same way. For the reader, it’s a shocking and very unpleasant experience. James indicates that it’s currently the only stable thing in his life and that he deserves it. He can rely on it, and he can take it. As readers and outsiders, we know he can’t. We know that no human being can go on living this way, and that something must change.
Despite this bravado, there are clues that he’s not so far gone as to be immune to the influence of other human beings. His brother, who accompanies them to the clinic, sits in the backseat with James and holds his hand. Of this encounter, James says simply, “He sits with me in the backseat and he holds my hand and it helps because I am scared.” Lilly is also able to get through to James when his parents or authority figures at the hospital can’t. She speaks to him twice, and he finds himself wanting more of her. In James’s past, there is a girl who has affected him deeply, although we don’t know much about her yet. James’s conversation with Ken is cautious. He conveys insincerity, insecurity, and belligerence in his one simple answer to Ken’s query about whether he’s ready to do whatever it takes to get sober: “I don’t know.” He repeats the answer no matter how many times Ken asks the question. The reader isn’t sure if he’s going to make it through the program. He comes across as a wounded, frightened animal.