Monday, January 4, 2010

A Million Little...Well, you know

We had one of those winter breaks that went on way too long. Even before we left for Mohonk Mountain House, my kids were overdosing on video games, YouTube, and whatever was playing on the telly. One afternoon, I walked into my older son's room and saw him watching something on his laptop.

"Ohmigod," I said. "We've bought you a TV for your room!" Duh. I guess I didn't think things through when we bought him a laptop with the Apple gift certificates he received as gifts for his bar mitzvah. "You have to start reading again," I said. "Turn that thing off and find a book."

Let me just say that until a year ago, my older son, now 13 and 1/2, was a terrific reader. Then came the fifth summer of sleepaway camp and his bar mitzvah and...well, if you have a teenage boy, you probably know what I'm talking about. Nothing can compete with electronic games. Xbox 360, Wii, Tetrus, everything available on Itouch...I think video games are poison and I know they are the future. My friend who is a dermatologist says they are good for hand-eye coordination, and I know they keep restless kids out of trouble during the winter, but I think they are visually stimulating garbage that are being designed to ensure we turn into a race of robots, living out scenes from "Matrix, "Surrogates" and multiple James Cameron movies.

But I digress. I left my older son's room in a huff and went downstairs. An hour later I returned. He was reading James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. This was actually his second attempt at reading the book. A year and a half ago, I assigned the first chapter to my students in a fiction and creative non-fiction class I was teaching (not for credit) at Columbia. Say what you want about James Frey---he's a pathological liar, a negative-attention seeker, a pathetic excuse for a memoirist, but he can write a riveting story and I wanted to see if my students enjoyed reading his work as much as I did. (They didn't.)

When I was done making copies of the first chapter of A Million Little Pieces, my older son "borrowed" the book from my writing room. My husband and I let him read a few pages, and then I took it away from him and put it back in my room. He didn't really object but obviously, the memory of it stayed with him. And here he was, reading it again.

Reader, we let him read it.

I had my heart in my mouth as I explained to him that the book was basically fiction that had been published as truth. Maybe some of it was truth, but a lot of it was not. I wasn't exactly sure what was true and what wasn't (I knew James Frey had had some kind of substance abuse problem and had done time in rehab and I knew he had really worked as a screenwriter and aspiring novelist.) I did think that as a story, and as a writing exercise, it was well done. Fascinating characters, compelling plot of self-destruction and misery followed by love and redemption, it was a true hero's tale, maybe not quite the Odyssey but employing the same principles of story-telling (protagonist runs into trouble and then gets out of it.) More important, as a mother, I figured that this tale of drug abuse might give our older son enough information to scare him away from trying it.

When I was in junior high, I read The Happy Hooker, a "memoir" by Xavier Hollander. I found it in our housekeeper's room but I'm pretty sure it belonged to my parents. I read that book cover to cover, and then brought it over to a friend's. Her brother disappeared with it. My parents knew I had been reading it and let me. The book was salacious, exciting, riveting, and scared the crap out of me. I will spare you the intimate details of my teenage years but let me just say that the book led me away from temptation, not towards it. With that in mind, I am hopeful that if my husband and I don't censor what our sons read, maybe they will be enthralled reading tales of deviant lifestyles, but not actually be tempted to try them out.

Back to A Million Little Pieces. Our older son couldn't put the book down. He took it with him when we went ice skating at Mohonk Mountain House. He took it with him when my husband and I went snow-shoeing and he went to play pool with his younger brother. At the ice-skating rink, the woman behind the counter (who had her own teenage boy at home), said to my son, "You know that book is a lie, right?'

I felt a bit sheepish but told her that I had explained that to him and he was reading it anyway. She laughed. (She laughed again when my older son refused to skate the first day, and then skated for hours the next.)

By the end of Christmas break, our older son had finished the book. He loved it. We had a long talk about its merits---Frey gets out of rehab. He rejects the 12-step program that the rehab facility recommends he embraces. He tempts himself by going to a bar with his brother and deciding not to drink. My older son went through the "bios" of all the characters, most of whom ended up dead (assuming they lived in the first place.) He read the list of characters, their names and how they died. My younger son listened intently to the conversation. We talked about crack houses, getting into fights in bars, why people relapse and why so many drug addicts die. I told my sons about a member of our family who had gone into rehab, relapsed and died while intoxicated.

I am no apologist for James Frey but I think, I hope, he did my older son a favor and not a disservice by writing about the horrors of alcohol and drug abuse in a way that makes addiction sound abhorrent and life-threatening. Frey is a talented writer and the book's confessional, intimate, fast-paced style make it easy to race through. And the fact (well, hopefully it's a fact) that Frey is still sober means that maybe there's a lesson here, that writing is healing.

My older son asked about Frey's other books, My Friend Leonard, and Bright Shiny Morning. I said that My Friend Leonard had been equally compelling, but that Bright Shiny Morning was too long and even though it was a novel, featured characters who seemed far more unbelievable than the characters in A Million Little Pieces. I said he was welcome to read them both and use a gift certificate to Amazon that I had received as a birthday present. He immediately went on line and ordered a copy of Leonard.

The post-script to this story is that our 9-year old started to read A Million Little Pieces too. He took it into his room and closed the door. Half an hour later, he emerged and said it was the best book he had ever read. I was kind of glad he was reading and not sitting in front of the computer, but then my gut kicked in and whatever shred of good sense I have whispered that it was a piss-poor idea to let a little kid read this book. I can be too permissive and relaxed about what my kids read and watch, and God knows, I have let them play too many video games. But I am not a complete moron. My husband and I decided that James Frey is downright inappropriate for a third grader. I took the book away and hid it. Our younger son hasn't asked for it but in four years, if he's interested, we'll find it for him. Hopefully, he won't find it first.

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