James has breakfast with Matty, who tells him that his wife is now hooked on crack, a terrifying and tragic prospect. James goes back to his room and retrieves his self inventory, which he takes to his meeting with the priest. James reads the priest all twenty-two pages. The priest asks if he’s finished. After a pause, James tells the priest the one thing that is haunting him: a year and a half ago, he was in Paris, seeking solace in a church. A priest in the church molested him, and James beat the man almost to death. He left before finding out whether the man had died.
James sees Lilly at lunch on the women’s side of the dining hall. He times his visit to the conveyer belt to coincide with hers. She turns and smiles at him. Ken and Joanne review James’s recovery plan with him. The plan consists mostly of AA meetings and the Twelve Steps. Back in his room, Miles brings in some mail for James. He has received a brown envelope from San Francisco from the Girl with the Arctic Eyes. It contains a stack of photos of James and the girl. James goes into the woods with the photos and his self inventory and burns it all.
James goes to dinner, where he sees Lilly briefly. Miles and Michael tell him that Ted is leaving in three days and that Matty’s wife is missing. Later, James wakes up in the middle of the night, terrified. He walks outside and stares and the lake and comes to the conclusion that there is no reason to be afraid. The next day, he gets contact information from all of his friends. He sees Lilly and he stands and stares until she runs to him. James promises her that she will hear from him every day.
After saying good-bye to Hank and Joanne, James leaves the clinic. His brother and his friend Kevin are already waiting at the door for him, ready to take him back into the world. James tells Bob and Kevin that he wants to go to a bar, first thing. At the bar he asks Bob for forty dollars and heads straight for the bartender and buys a pint glass of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. He smells it, touches it, and stares at his own reflection in it. Ultimately, he tells the bartender to pour it down the drain. James faces the prospect of jail with courage, and the very last lines express that he is now “ready.” Directly following this is a single page giving a terse listing of what happened to the people mentioned in the book after the events of the story took place. The majority of the patients have died, including Lilly, who committed suicide, and Leonard, who died of AIDS-related complications. In the very last sentence, we find out that James has remained sober to this day.
James has lost none of his bravado during his stay at the clinic. What he has done, however, is put it to a new use. Before coming to the clinic, James demonstrated his toughness by drawing everything inward, ingesting toxic substances and shutting other people out. The energy is now going in the opposite direction. The brooding, seething energy has transformed into an ironclad confidence in himself and others. James is now willing to tell his story (to a priest, no less) and at least participate in some of the steps of the clinic’s program. Naturally, James participates on his own terms, but he does participate. James is intent on talking to Lilly one last time, regardless of the fact that he knows that she runs the risk of being kicked out if they talk again. There’s a touch of selfishness here; Lilly can ill-afford, either financially or physically, to leave the clinic. But James believes in their love above all else. They will solve their own problems. Finally, James makes a deliberate, public effort to face his demons by ordering and disposing of the glass of whiskey. This is a dangerous gamble and the old swagger is evident here, but the outcome is positive.
There is another important change in direction in the last pages. Instead of looking backward and dreaming of past incidents and missed opportunities, James is looking forward. He sets fire to his final inventory and the surprise package he receives in the mail from the Girl with the Arctic Eyes. The fact that we never do hear the full story of what happened with her is an indication that James has come full circle: near the beginning of his stay, during his visit from his brother and two friends, James tries to excavate the past, but his friend doesn’t let him. Now, as he’s being provoked by someone else to bring up old memories, he passes up the bait. Though James’s immediate future will be spent in jail, he faces this boldly, clearly showing that he can see beyond those three months.
Despite some of the rather neat and tidy last scenes (pouring the whiskey down the drain, becoming Leonard’s son, declaring love to Lilly), the book doesn’t end on an entirely positive note. While Miles and his family may be off to reconciliation, Matty’s wife could very well be dead, and Lilly has had to start the program entirely from the beginning. The last page of the book is more or less a litany of the dead, and the deaths listed are not easy and painless. In fact, the final page is a bit of a bloodbath—three shootings, a death in a barfight, a drowning, a hanging. Two of the characters have simply disappeared and are presumably dead. Only James, Miles, and Leonard (who dies of unrelated causes) have even remotely happy endings. These are the three men who have either read the Tao or subscribed to the “hold on” theory, the implication being that James’s system is the only one that really works.