by Erik Noonan
Published by Little, Brown & Company, 2010 | 240 pages
Bill Clegg’s memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, is the journey of a harrowing downward spiral into the cycle of crack addiction and the damage left in its wake. Written in short, block paragraphs, Clegg bounces back and forth between scenes of his progressive addiction and childhood memories (written in third person) which left him full of shame, confusion, doubt, and insecurity. Although Clegg, an acclaimed New York literary agent who walks away from his company during a two-month binge, never blames his past for his addiction, his memoir effortlessly interweaves memory and behavior into a story about a young man who somehow survives after trying to make himself into “almost nothing.”
Through 222 pages of fearless honesty, Clegg recounts night after night of crack and vodka binges which leave him jobless, emaciated and on the verge of mental collapse. From the first line of the memoir, “I can’t leave and there isn’t enough,” to his suicide note toward the end of the book, “Can’t take it,” the reader is led through excruciating detail of hit after hit of crack. The beauty and eventual redemption of this memoir is Clegg’s ability to confront and articulate the irresistible attraction and then devastating powerlessness that defines addiction. Describing his first crack high, he writes, “It storms through him – kinetic, sexual, euphoric – like a magnificent hurricane raging at the speed of light. It is the warmest, most tender caress he has ever felt and then, as it recedes, the coldest hand. He misses the feeling even before it’s left him and not only does he want more, he needs it.”
However, Portrait’s strength is also its weakness. His searing honesty about the amount of crack smoked (nine bags in one night, when normally a big night for him would be two bags shared with someone else), his impending paranoia of being followed by ‘JC Penny Men’ and the rapid deterioration of both his career as a literary agent and his $70,000 savings account, become redundant. True to addict form, Clegg’s behavior is exactly the same day after day with varying degrees of binging. Beyond the honesty, the simple recounting of money blown (Clegg seems to have an uncanny ability to remember exact cash amounts paid for cabs, rooms, drugs and clothes), crack consumed, and hotels stayed at, Clegg’s introspection doesn’t extend beyond the question “am I now the purgatory between citizen and nobody, between fine young man and bum?”
Ultimately, Portrait of a Young Addict is a heart-breaking, exciting portrayal of the spiritual, mental and physical bankruptcy that results from drug abuse. Clegg’s willingness to admit his own culpability, his own fantasy, and his own interior frustration is what saves the book from itself. After the smoke clears, what’s left is Clegg, contemplating suicide, an empty, hollow shell of a man, powerless over his addiction. But through the intervention of his boyfriend Noah and family members, Clegg emerges as someone that can be known and saved from behind the cloud of crack smoke he hides himself in. Clegg becomes the hero of his own tragedy; his memoir is a redemptive tale of how love and hope carry all of us through the most daunting circumstances.
Patrick Haas is an MFA student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.