James Frey

The protagonist and narrator. James is a 23-year-old man with a serious drug and alcohol problem. When the book opens, James is a physical and mental wreck, forced to enter the world’s most successful drug and alcohol clinic. During his stay, he battles his personal demons, makes an unusual group of friends, and falls in love with a drug-addicted former prostitute named Lilly. He adopts a philosophy of self-reliance and rejects the traditional forms of treatment (as exemplified in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous). Unlike many of the people he meets in the clinic, James emerges sober and takes control of his life.

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James’s best friend in rehab, rumored to be a mobster. Leonard is a larger-than-life figure who wears loud clothing and throws dinners for the men in the unit. It is Leonard who persuades James to stay at the clinic. At the end of the book, he “adopts” James as his son.

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A fellow patient and eventually James’s girlfriend. Lilly was forced into prostitution at a young age to support her mother’s heroin habit. In time, she became a drug addict herself. She was sent to the clinic by her grandmother, a good woman who saved up her money for three years to pay for Lilly’s treatment. Lilly is the person most capable of calming James down during his rages.

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Miles Davis

One of James’s roommates. Miles is a judge from New Orleans and a clarinet player. He’s a family man and truly desirous of a recovery. While sharing a room with Miles, James experiences some peace, especially when he falls asleep to Miles playing the clarinet. As he does with Leonard, James suspects Miles of working to get James’s prison sentence reduced.


James’s psychologist at the clinic. Like all staff members at the facility, she is a recovering addict. Joanne is the first to recognize that the best way to deal with James is to let him make his own decisions. She presses gently and knows when the time is right to let him have his own way. She’s well traveled and worldly.


A clinic worker and one of James’s first friends. Hank takes James to the dentist and gives him tennis balls to squeeze during James’s horrifying root canal procedure. His gruff exterior belies his gentle personality. He is dating Joanne.


James’s unit counselor. Ken is a stickler for the rules and doesn’t quite know what to make of James. He sees James frequently and genuinely tries to help, but his unwavering belief in the Twelve Step program prevents him and James from making a true connection.


Unit supervisor at the clinic. Lincoln is the resident tough guy, the person who is called in when the patients get physically out of control. Although gruff, Lincoln can also be a kind person. He constantly butts heads with James but is made to see James’s reasoning each time they encounter each other. Near the end of the story, Lincoln and James set aside their differences and reach a level of mutual respect.

The Girl with the Arctic Eyes

James’s ex-girlfriend. She is never named and only appears in dreams and memories. At the end of the book, she sends James a package of photographs.

Lynne Frey

James’s mother. Lynne lives in Tokyo. She consistently tries to be a good mother but doesn’t know how to help her son. Along with her husband, she checks James into the clinic.

Bob Frey, Sr.

James’s father. A busy top-level executive. He is forced to leave the Family Program early because of business.

Bob Frey, Jr.

James’s brother. Bob lives in Minneapolis. He has a regular job and a nice life, unlike James. He is totally unafraid to show emotion to and care for his brother.


One of James’s first roommates at the clinic. Warren is an upper-class type who wears nice, starched shirts. He’s an alcoholic and a gentle man who quickly befriends James.


One of James’s first roommates at the clinic. John is an ex-con who was molested by his father as a child. He is also a trust-fund baby, something that James can relate to. John is one of the strangest patients James encounters: when he meets people, he gives them a business card advertising himself as a “Sexual Ninja” and explains that he is addicted to anal sex.


One of James’s first roommates at the clinic. He leaves soon after James arrives without completing the program.

The Bald Man

Replaces Larry as one of James’s roommates. Sweet and completely lacking in cynicism, he’s the first man that James sees as brave for crying.


A drug dealer and crackhead. Ted is a friend of Leonard’s and eventually, James’s. He provides crass, amusing commentary during meals.


An alcoholic and part of James’s mealtime group. Ed is a steelworker, and this is his fourth time in rehab.


Another patient at the clinic. Roy develops a grudge against James immediately after his arrival and sabotages his efforts to keep the group toilets clean. He suffers from multiple-personality disorder. He reappears at the clinic after his release, swinging a stick and screaming that his name is Jack.


The former featherweight champion of the world in boxing and a crack addict. He constantly struggles to stop swearing. While he is in the facility, Matty receives the grim news that his wife tries crack out of curiosity, becomes addicted, and disappears.


A girl from James’s middle school who was killed when the car she was in was struck by a train, many years before the events in the story take place. James claims that he was held partly responsible for the accident.