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When I first got sober 27 years ago, the furthest thing from my mind was to write a book about it – particularly a book that faced those first 90 days which were such a maelstrom of anxiety and inability to focus that I thought I would go out of my mind even before the chance of relapse could occur. I also thought, for a blessedly short minute, that I might even be straight. Bill Clegg, on the other hand, never experienced that particular form of writer’s block and has managed to write not just a memoir about his first 90 days (which took two and a half years to complete) but, also a prequel to it (The Portrait of the Artist as a Crack Addict).
The same impetus (telling a drug story – or, as it is fondly referred to in certain circles, a drunkalogue) that forced his first book into being is behind this sophomore effort, and while there are some compelling moments and good writing, a lot of the book is very literal and, in some ways, feels too close to itself as subject matter to ever really transcend the story and become something more artful and literary. And there’s a narcissistic subtext here, too, that is, admittedly, unavoidable. Narcissism is not only in the makeup of homosexuality but also in the profile of the drug addict and alcoholic. Put them together, and narcissism becomes a big part of the overall recovery process. Any layman would tell you, you need to get over yourself by realizing you move through the world with other people.
Ninety Days is about Clegg’s small and desperate world in early recovery that consists of getting high in front of a sponsor, meeting on street corners, going to the same meetings, selling his mother’s silver to buy drugs, no sex to speak of, and basically living a life that doesn’t happen very much outside a self-contained neighborhood consisting of less than 10 city blocks. The narrative resembles the narrative in every addict’s recovery life: frenzied, unsure, and improvisational and it’s the jaggedness of getting off the drugs – finding the language for that – that really gives Ninety Days its stark power. They tell you, the old-timers, that when you first get sober, the hardest thing to do is figure out what to do with unstructured time. So, one of the suggestions at the beginning is that when all else fails – and, obviously, with at least three relapses recounted here, much is failing – to try and help another alcoholic achieve sobriety, something Clegg never really does.
Still, with those shortcomings, Clegg has done something singular and unique in the literature of recovery. He has made relapse the subject and not recovery the subject. That self-proclaimed emphasis is this book’s great strength because the question posed from the very beginning of whether or not he’s going to do crack again or drink again is never really answered. In a large way, this is a book about not finding the answer, when most memoirs are poised to do the exact opposite. It’s a great organizing principle of the book and the last chapter, “Close” – in which Clegg swallows a mouthful of vodka after being sober for 6 years – is simply extraordinary. The scene is set in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and reads like a thriller:
There it is. Vodka not gin. Orange not lime. Smirnoff not Ketel One. Smirnoff not Stoli. By no means the best vodka in the world. By no means even the second best. But it’s here. And no one else is. No one is watching. No one is waiting for me and it’s been almost six years. A drink, just one, on the balcony of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Why does this feel necessary?
Then he lies to his sponsor and everyone else (he tells them he almost drank) until he finally gives in to the people close to him and once again tries recovery. All the false starts in the book (which one always hopefully feels are only that – that one day, Clegg will have gotten few years clean and sober under his belt) are actually revealed in that hotel scene as precursors of what may well become a life of false starts.
Ninety Days, then, finally, is not one of those memoirs where one triumphs over adversity and sets down on a better path of living, but a book about a man who understands how challenging it is to live in the answer without always being able to follow it. That last chapter is so powerful and so well written that I only wish it had been the beginning of the book and only gotten better from there. In the end, Clegg manages to convey all the complexity and sorrow and stubbornness and, most importantly, the disease concept of addiction. That one cannot stay sober alone. That we need other people. “If you are struggling with drugs and alcohol, they can help you, too. Find them now” are the final sentences in Ninety Days. Sobriety isn’t promised, nor is it unattainable, and Bill Clegg knows better than any writer I’ve ever read on the subject the delicate difference between the two.
Little Brown and Company
Hardcover, 9780316122528, 194 pp.