Writing a good addiction memoir is difficult — or maybe it’s reading an addiction memoir that’s difficult, at least for non-addicts. The line between drug-induced hallucination and psychotic episode is blurry, and sympathizing with the addict in question, while of course eschewed in public, is surprisingly difficult in private, where one is certain that could never happen.
“Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man” (ignore the pompous title; a Künstlerroman this is not) is Bill Clegg’s attempt at an addiction memoir. At points engaging, even engrossing, something nevertheless seems off about the entire venture. Could it be because Clegg is a successful literary agent rather than a life-long writer? ‘Portrait’ isn’t without merit, but despite its occasional literary flair remains unsatisfactory and ultimately unconvincing.
Clegg was a young, handsome, successful literary agent in New York; he had his own agency, a dedicated boyfriend and $70,000 in his checking account. Oh, and a healthy crack habit. It had apparently been manageable for a time, but ‘Portrait’ recounts his two-month binge in which he blows his bank account on an unholy amount of crack, cirrhotic gallons of vodka, various hookers and rooms at all of Manhattan’s upscale hotels. Actually, it’s the hotels — the W, the Gansevoort, a place called the Giraffe — that set ‘Portrait’ apart from grittier addict memoirs like James Salant’s “Leaving Dirty Jersey” or James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” (quasi-fictional as it is). Clegg’s binge in no way can be called gritty; in fact, short the burn scars on his hands from hot stems and the rapid weight loss that required half a dozen new holes punched in his belt, Clegg’s adventure could almost be mistaken an expensive mental breakdown. His drugs are brought to his rooms by dealers; he can pick up men on the street simply by asking if they “party,” lingo for users; when he becomes too gaunt for his old sweater he buys one from Saks so as not to look so obviously like a crackhead.
The binge is entertaining enough, and at times Clegg’s prose even displays some literary intelligence — his line about the first time he tried crack, for instance: “It is the warmest, most tender caress he has ever felt and then, as it recedes, the coldest hand.” Most of the time, however, his writing is merely competent exposition or, even worse, forced prosaic device, as if he had read about cut-up technique and just had to try it. Perhaps even more strangely, for a book about heightened sensory detail through illegal drugs, Clegg generally steers clear of description and sensation. Expensive lunches with high-powered authors go unrecounted; physical sensation, including sex, remains vague and indiscriminate; architectural sketches remain sterile. If this was Clegg’s intention, an attempt to put focus on the crack itself, he fails; so much time is spent describing the minute hand movements of cab drivers ‘Portrait’ begins to read more like an absurdly extensive screenplay rather than a poignant memoir.
Clegg’s crack-induced paranoia is probably the most engaging part of ‘Portrait.’ Almost unfailingly Clegg mistakes passersby for undercover DEA agents, cab drivers as part of an elaborate plot to capture him, flashing lights as spy cameras gathering evidence. Waiting for a plane to take off, for instance, Clegg suddenly suspects the entire aircraft is a set-up, and asks the flight attendant if the scheme isn’t a little overboard to nab one user. Post-9/11, she is concerned, and the captain removes Clegg from the plane. “I notice his jacket, its hokey military mimicry — epaulets, stripes. Like everything else on the plane, his uniform — shabby compared to the memory of my father’s — looks like a flimsy, slapped-together costume.” Notably, he never realizes, at the time, at least, that his paranoia is a symptom; instead, he merely flees the situation and momentarily regains some mental composure.
Adding to the confusion are Clegg’s haphazard and inconclusive flashbacks to childhood. He seems to be grasping at straws when it comes to identifying the root causes of his addiction, binge and downfall. Is it his brusque, gruff father (a TWA pilot, as previously noted), who never showed Clegg real affection? Maybe his distant mother? His college-age coming out, which doesn’t come across as overly distressing? Clegg seems to most blame his addiction on a weird and poorly described bout of urinary problems that required him to dance and shout and which left blood stains on his underwear and which typically went unremarked upon by his mother. Clegg succeeds in portraying the urination trouble painfully, but blanches from anything close to a diagnosis or explanation. Despite these childhood traumas, Clegg seems unaware of his greatest problem, the insecurity that seems to trigger his addiction; in multiple offhanded comments, Clegg notes that he never felt adequate professionally, that despite his wild success he lived every day fearing that someone would discover he knows less about literature than he lets on. “I am not nearly as bright or well read or business savvy or connected as I think people imagine me to be.” This fear seems to be the culmination of some kind of inferiority complex, and Clegg plays right into it throughout the entire book, even at the end, never seeing or admitting the true roots of his addiction problems.
Of course, Clegg’s blindness is understandable, empathetic even. Whether an addict recognizing the former terrors of their crashing lives or the sober vowing never to end up blowing $70,000 on crack, few, if any, ever truly understand our own difficulties and obsessions. Clegg’s portrait may be incomplete, but a good deal about him and about the psychology of addiction can be gleaned from those brushstrokes he has managed to put down.