"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Should celebrity be classified as a controlled substance? Consider first the available medical literature: rambling and confused statements, delusional behavior, outbursts of megalomania, and in the case of People magazine’s Steven Cojocaru, unflattering shags — all triggered by the sudden and confounding infusion of quasi-fame. The blazingly dysfunctional path of today’s insta-celebrities is not something children should be exposed to or, come to think of it, most adults. Enough fooling around, then. Bring on the PSA campaign.
And for campaign spokesman, please consider James Frey, the rising author who has, in effect, done the thing he swore never to do: He has traded in one addiction for another. That is, he has written a ballsy, bone-deep memoir about coming off drugs — titled “A Million Little Pieces” — which he is now promoting with such hopped-up, synthetically fueled mania that reading his interviews becomes a form of retox.
“A Million Little Pieces” has all the hallmarks of a Publishing Event. An eye-grabbing cover: the Buñuellian image of a human hand sheathed in micro-pills. A movie-ready subject: the near-death spiral and phoenixlike rebirth of a rich suburban kid. (Boy, Interrupted.) A string of high-profile blurbers: Pat Conroy, Bret Easton Ellis, Gus Van Sant. And, most telling of all, a publicity Anschluss, engineered by Random House’s genteel Nan Talese imprint.
The big noise began with a now-famous New York Observer interview, two full months before the book’s release, in which the 33-year-old Frey wasted no time sawing off the legs of his rivals. “I don’t give a fuck what Jonathan Safran whatever-his-name does or what David Foster Wallace does. I don’t give a fuck what any of those people do. I don’t hang out with them, I’m not friends with them, I’m not part of the literati.” Don’t even get him started on Dave Eggers. “A book that I thought was mediocre was being hailed as the best book written by the best writer of my generation. Fuck that. And fuck him and fuck anybody who says that. I don’t give a fuck what they think about me. I’m going to try to write the best book of my generation and I’m going to try to be the best writer.”
And that was just appetizers. Before he was done, Frey had revealed:
Somewhere on Heaven’s savannah, Papa Hemingway was firing off Gatling-gun salutes. In subsequent interviews, Frey has struck a more chastened tone and has even exhibited some blunt decency, but any interviewer who sticks around long enough is bound to be rewarded with another round of chest butting.
“It’s a new phenomenon that writers aren’t willing to say, ‘I want to be the fucking best!’” he told Entertainment Weekly. “For most of the 20th century, when people like me grew up wanting to be writers, people like Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer — none of these people got into writing and didn’t take it fucking seriously. They got into it saying, ‘I’m going to write books that change people’s lives. I’m going to write the best book of my generation. I’m going to be remembered as someone who changed the way people think and write and live.’ Well, I don’t have a problem saying I want to be the fucking best.”
Shifting gears: “I don’t sit at home and think, ‘Okay, I’m going to make this person think this about me.’ To a certain extent, I don’t give a fuck what you think about me.”
A writer who wants to be thought of as the fucking best but doesn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks. Oh, the webs we authors weave when we leave the safety of the printed page. I happen to think “A Million Little Pieces” will be a top seller with or without the aggressive hyping — as the most scalding account of addiction in recent memory, it deserves to be — but not all publicity is good publicity, and if these take-no-prisoner interviews continue, the book in question may soon be dwarfed by the Other Story: James Frey’s bombs bursting in air. He may become the latest cautionary example of how writers compromise themselves the moment they open their mouths.
Can any book live up to the expectations James Frey has created? Well, if this bullheaded, lionhearted book doesn’t reach the level of masterpiece, it’s not for lack of trying. Frey has devised a rolling, pulsing style that really moves — an acquired taste, perhaps, but undeniably striking. It may not make him the world’s best fucking author, but at least he can console himself with how far he has climbed in the world’s estimation. A decade ago, he was, by his own admission, “an Alcoholic and a drug Addict and a Criminal.” He had begun drinking while still a child. At 12, he was smoking pot. (It was the only drug he was able to give up: not strong enough.) At 15, he was selling drugs and liquor. At 18, he was blacking out every night, and at 21, he was throwing up, pissing and shitting blood. Booze, crack, pills, acid, mushrooms, meth, PCP, glue: He did them all. And after skipping bail in three different states, he took a face-first tumble down a fire escape, broke his nose, gashed his face, knocked out four of his teeth — and woke up on a plane. The party was over.
When the book opens, Frey is being shipped off by his parents to Minnesota’s famous Hazelden drug and alcohol treatment facility. Prostrate and strung out he may be, but he’s no pushover. From the onset, he breaks rules, rebels against clinic authorities and rejects the 12-step pieties propagated by his well-meaning counselors — refuses, in effect, to follow the Recovery Arc. And so “A Million Little Pieces” ends up following an arc of its own. It’s about a stubborn, prickly, fucked-up guy who, with the help of the Tao Te Ching and some appealingly unsavory rehab mates, finds his own road back to life. “There is no God,” he declares, “and there is no such thing as a Higher Power. I will do it with me. Alone … Every time I want to drink or do drugs, I’m going to make the decision not to do them. I’ll keep making that decision until it’s no longer a decision, but a way of life.”
As Bette Midler once observed, when a cokehead says, “Let’s go somewhere and talk,” what he really means is, “Let’s go somewhere and I’ll talk.” And that’s essentially what “A Million Little Pieces” is: 382 pages of churning, self-mortifying, self-aggrandizing talk — no indentations, no quotation marks — nothing to stop the unspooling of consciousness.
“I open the door and I walk out. I make my way back to the Unit. Night has fallen and the Halls are dark. Overhead lights illuminate them. I hate the lights I want them gone. I wish the Halls were darker. I am craving the dark the darkest darkness the deep and horrible hole. I wish the Halls were fucking black. My mind is black my heart is black I wish the Halls were black. If I could, I would destroy the lights above me with a fucking bat. I would smash them to fucking pieces. I wish the Halls were black.”
This is as good an example as any of Frey’s style: the Germanically capitalized nouns, the steady drumbeat of baldly declarative sentences, the incantatory rhythms. Stretched to book length, of course, the baldness can turn portentous and the incantation can curdle into mere repetition. “A Million Little Pieces” is mannered, exasperating, far too long, stiff with masculine posturing, at times disingenuous. (How is the Tao Te Ching any less prescriptive or beholden to higher authority than the 12 steps?) And yet it’s a fierce and honorable work that refuses to glamorize that author’s addiction or his thorny personality:
“I want a drink. I want fifty drinks. I want a bottle of the purest, strongest, most destructive, most poisonous alcohol on Earth. I want fifty bottles of it. I want crack, dirty and yellow and filled with formaldehyde. I want a pile of powder meth, five hundred hits of acid, a garbage bag full of mushrooms, a tube of glue bigger than a truck, a pool of gas large enough to drown in. I want something anything whatever however as much as I can.”
In this way, Frey earns his moments of awkward, hard-wrung pathos:
“The Gates are open and thirteen years of addiction, violence, Hell and their accompaniment are manifesting themselves in dense tears and heavy sobs and a shortness of breath and a profound sense of loss. The loss inhabits, fills and overwhelms me. It is the loss of a childhood of being a Teenager of normalcy of happiness of love of trust of reason of God of Family of friends of future of potential of dignity of humanity of sanity of myself of everything everything everything. I lost everything and I am lost reduced to a mass of mourning, sadness, grief, anguish and heartache. I am lost. I have lost. Everything. Everything.”
They’re not always pretty, these linguistic pileups, but coursing through every page is the author’s palpable desire — a desire that might effetely be called Dostoevskian — to scrape down to the very marrow, to transcribe everything, everything about this particular experience.
The result is a book that makes other recovery memoirs look, well, a little pussy-ass — a book about the body in all its horror. Spit, snot, urine, shit. The deadly shakes, wall-rattling screams. Skin gouging, hair tearing. Nails pulled off toes. A grueling, anesthesia-free round of dental surgery. And more vomiting than a whale-watching expedition:
“Blood and bile and chunks of my stomach come pouring from my mouth and my nose. It gets stuck in my throat, in my nostrils, in what remains of my teeth. Again it comes, again it comes, again it comes, and with each episode a sharp pain shoots through my chest, my left arm and my jaw. I bang my head on the back of the toilet but I feel nothing. I bang it again. Nothing.”
Frey is so unrelenting with the details that the occasionally protruding spikes of black humor are a form of clemency for the reader. I loved the moment when he describes his Hazelden buddies for his quietly appalled mother: “My closest friend is some kind of Mobster. My Roommate is a Federal Judge. My other friends are Crackheads and Drunks. I sort of have a Girlfriend, and she’s a Crackhead and a Pillpopper and she used to be a prostitute … They’re the best friends I’ve ever had.” And there’s a mordantly funny reflection on “Friends,” which is blaring surreally from the clinic TV: “The only people I know who spend so much time in one Apartment usually have black plastic taped over the windows and guns in the closet and burn marks on their lips and fingers and huge locks on the door. They are not witty people, though their paranoia can be amusing.” (That’s a remark one could imagine, oh, Dave Eggers making, but coming from someone who’s actually spent time in such apartments, it’s immeasurably more biting.) And, perhaps most enjoyable of all, is Frey’s rant against an unnamed rock star (Steven Tyler?), a Hazelden alumnus who comes back to deliver a highly romanticized account of his own recovery. “Were I in my normal frame of mind,” Frey writes, “I would stand up, point my finger, scream Fraud, and chase this Chump Motherfucker down and give him a beating … I would tell him that if I ever heard of him spewing his bullshit fantasies in Public again, I would cut off his precious hair, scar his precious lips, and take all of his goddamned gold records and shove them straight up his ass.”
That was Frey then. This, sadly, is Frey talking more recently to Entertainment Weekly: “When I walk into Random House, they treat me like a rock star. People are breathless. They can’t believe I’m alive. They’re like ‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’” Sounds like just one more bullshit fantasy to me. Frey is being compared to lots of people — Eggers, Bukowski, Wallace — but the swaggering gait and the relish for the mike are more akin to Norman Mailer than anyone else. Like Mailer, Frey publicly grapples with the dark, unruly force within him. (Call it “the Fury”; call it “the Beast”; it doesn’t matter.) And like Mailer, Frey imparts the sense of an embattled ego struggling not just to assert but to impose itself, to clear the field of all comers. And so if we think of “Million Little Pieces” as Frey’s “Naked and the Dead” (the same foxhole camaraderie, the same insistence on male ritual), what are we to make of the public persona Frey is consciously or unconsciously creating through the unstable medium of publicity tours? Is this his “Advertisements for Myself”?
In fact, it took Mailer years to overcome his initial success. And while he went on to write great books — “Armies in the Night,” “The Executioner’s Song” — he has spent the last two decades playing the role of dial-up provocateur, obscuring his considerable gifts as an observer by allowing himself to be observed more and more by others. He blows hard, all right — so does Gore Vidal — but that doesn’t make either one of them serious.
I think James Frey, by contrast, is serious. I like how, in his Observer interview, he talks about “moving against the trend of irony” and being “a bullet in the heart of that bullshit.” A writer unafraid of feeling is someone to stick around for. But if celebrity is an addiction, and if addiction, to quote Frey, is a choice, then his choice begins now. He can spend more time in his glassed-in lion’s den, chewing on the red meat fed him by interviewers, or he can take himself as seriously as he wants to be taken. Squeeze the hyperbole out of his pores and quietly (or noisily) refine his craft and tell the stories he wants to tell. He can, to quote the Tao Te Ching, let it be. And maybe, in the process, he’ll become what he so desperately wants. At any rate, it’ll be fun to watch him try.
This story has been corrected from the original.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)