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It is with a sense of shame that I admit I approached Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg with a bit of negative bias. It was getting too much attention with high-profile praise in places like the New York Times Book Review; I often wonder if that is the result of public relations more than craft.
But I was wrong.
I found this book to be compelling from the start, and I had it by my side the entire week I read it; even writing this review is taking longer than it should, because I keep re-reading passages and getting pulled into it over and over again.
Clegg was co-owner of a literary agency that was garnering more and more success when he went on a two-month binge that saw him spending $70,000 on crack, vodka, male escorts, and high-end hotel rooms, which he would leave without checking out. His paranoia convinced him he was being followed and about to be arrested.
I have read criticisms of how we should feel no sympathy for an upper-middle-class white guy who goes on a bender, but I was more struck by this book’s similarities with other narratives of those who have fallen under the spell of crack—like Cupcake Brown’s Piece of Cake, about a heterosexual, African-American woman who spent years being abused in the foster care system and then grew up into an adulthood ruled by prostitution, homelessness, and crack (though she is now a lawyer practicing in San Francisco).
These two stories could not be more different, but the dangers of crack—the paranoia, the crawling on the floor looking for crumbs, the desire to put the drug ahead of everything else—span across race, class, gender, and all those other labels we use to categorize people.
This is not to say that Portrait of an Addict does not deserve its own attention and accolades—part of its power does lie in its legitimacy when compared to similar narratives, but Clegg also has his own commanding story to tell.
It all starts with his Connecticut childhood, where his inability to urinate easily wrecked havoc on his entire family for years. That led into an adolescence of drug experimentation that continued into college and culminated in the binge that takes up the majority of the book.
Yes, he might have more money than most addicts, but that creates its own inimitable sadness. Just try to read the chapter where his partner, Noah, finds him in one of his hotel rooms and not feel your stomach clench. The images are haunting still.
Years ago during the James Frey scandal, when the author of A Million Little Pieces was found out to have fabricated too much of his memoir of addiction and recovery for most of us to see it as nonfiction, a friend of mine said, “What does it matter? Don’t we have enough drug memoirs already?” I was stunned and quickly said, “No.”
One of the major reasons I am drawn to memoir is because I think the good ones can help the rest of us live our own lives. When my partner died of AIDS in 1992, it was the nonfiction of John Preston, Larry Kramer, and others that got me through some dark days.
I know that memoirs about drug addiction and recovery can do the same thing, especially this one.
Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man:
By Bill Clegg
Hachette Book Group
Hardcover, $23.99, 240p