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:
A Memoir
By Bill Clegg
Hachette Book Group
ISBN: 978-0-316-05467-6
Hardcover, $23.99, 240p

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3 Responses to “‘Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man’ By Bill Clegg”

  1. 6 October 2010 at 2:44 PM #

    What is the point of this memoir? I’ve finished two-thirds of it, but I’m weary already and frankly do not want to finish it. The writing is excellent, that’s not in question. But to what end is this writing being put? I confront, once more, the old tensions: Isn’t this excellent writing just glamorizing the addiction it purports to denigrate? The fact that Clegg was able to pull out of his addiction with precious few consequences shows that you, too, can go on a $70,000-a-month crack binge and yet get your lover, job, and income (and score a truly sweet book deal, too!). Is that the wrong lesson to draw? “Obviously.” Except that it’s not really that obvious. Merely describing heart-wrenching scenes of tragedy in amazing language might be enough to justify this memoir by giving it some larger moral purpose. But that seems terribly undermined by the simple fact that these tragic scenes had no real consequences for Clegg’s life.

    I keep comparing this memoir to Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s memoir, which is written from the flip-side of the “love with a crack addict” perspective. In each case, I can’t help but think “poor little rich boy.” What have I learned from each person’s experience? What do I take away with me? If this beautiful language were applied to child rape or a gay-bashing, we’d be up in arms because no amount of beautiful writing could justify such descriptions. That’s an extreme analogy, but I keep coming back to it. The writing must serve a purpose, and yet I am hard pressed to discover what that is.

  2. 6 October 2010 at 4:46 PM #

    Tim, I think the point of this memoir will depend upon the reader and why they read memoir. That’s why I stated in this review why I read memoir. Those who read for different reasons will not find it valuable in the ways I do.

    I would invite anyone interested in this topic to read Cupcake Brown’s A Piece of Cake. She is not rich, not white, not male. She is the exact opposite of Clegg and Kilmer-Purcell’s boyfriend. As I say in this review, part of the power of this book for me rests in the similarities between it and Brown’s memoir. Brown’s life was horrifying for decades. Crack became a big part of it, but that’s only after a pretty traumatic childhood. Perhaps I’m not ready to dismiss Clegg as some rich, white guy because I read it after Brown’s. Brown’s might have been the first crack memoir I ever read, so that may shape my perceptions. The narratives of rich, white men came after I read memoirs by those who were not rich or white.

    I am curious about your comment about memoirs of gay bashing or child rape. I think I disagree, but I may not understand your point. Why should we be up in arms about Martin Moran’s memoir of child rape, The Tricky Part? People weren’t and, to my knowledge, aren’t. I think that is also a beautiful book that can help abuse survivors in the way I think this book (and Brown’s and others) can help addicts and families of addicts. Not to say it will help everyone, but it could help some.

    Also, I tried hard not to reveal much about the book’s plot in this review, but I would not be so sure that he gets out of this binge with his lover, job, and income intact. One reason why I read it so fast was because I wanted to know what he lost and what remained.

    (BTW, sorry that book titles are not italicized in the review; something must have gotten lost in translation.)

  3. […] PORTRAIT OF AN ADDICT AS A YOUNG MAN: A Memoir by Bill Clegg Little, Brown Interview | Trailer […]

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