Upon learning that Bill Clegg has recieved a Man Booker long list nod for a book that hasn’t even been published yet, I thought I’d resurrect this 2010 review of his earlier memoir. -JB
The downfall of Bill Clegg’s Portrait of An Addict As a Young Man is contained in the following sentence from the book: “There is only $9,000 and change in my back account, and the end is in sight.” Only nine grand? We should all have such a commanding height from which to survey our own approaching doom.
Clegg’s memoir—it is resolutely a memoir; it eschews reportage, forgets dates, and deliberately suffuses everything with a haze of uncertainty—is by no means the worst thing ever written about addiction. Simply by grace of its modest ambitions and abject tone it towers, morally and artistically, above the macho posturing of James Frey or the overwrought quirk-porn of Augusten Burroughs. It portrays a sordid episode without prurience, although it is sometimes discreet to a fault, and its occasional shyness about the author’s sexual debauches feels calculated and off-putting. Its prose is sharp and well-handled, if fairly quotidian, and the present-tense narration, which bothered me at first, works, establishing an intimacy and immediacy to events that occurred nearly a decade ago.
And yet as a “Portrait of an Addict” it is a failure, and it should probably have been titledPortrait of a Rich Dude on a Bender. The author begins with $70,000 in his checking account. Seventy thousand bucks! He ends with about a tenth of that, which is still more than most of us can claim. The timeframe is deliberately obscure, but seems to take place over just a few months, with several forays back to an appropriately traumatic childhood and to some undergraduate party days. During his swift decline-and-fall, Clegg does spend a brief moment in a crack-house with a woman whose possibly Caribbean accent he never manages to place, but otherwise his tale of depredation and woe seems to take place principally at chi-chi downtown hotels and airport Marriotts.
If it were a celebrity biography or a gossip-rag bit on Lindsay Lohan, we would feel less pity than gleeful contempt. How bad can you have it when your come-to-Jesus moment involves getting kicked out of the Soho Grand? Clegg is a sufficiently skillful author to make himself into a more sympathetic main character, but his story still never transcends its own most basic premise: a rich, privileged guy on a path of self-destruction.
Of course, addiction is an affliction without regard for race or class or sex. If we were better people, we would feel pity rather than contempt for poor Miss Lohan, and we should feel it likewise for Bill Clegg. Still, though he admirably captures the dullness and monotony of an addict’s substance-seeking, how many times can you hear about the problem posed by $200 ATM withdrawal limits in the course of trying to get a thousand bucks in cash before you throw the book across the room. Oh, boo-hoo! How seriously can you take a crackhead who, when he exhausts the holes on his belt, thinks only that he will have to find a leatherworker when he gets to Rome to punch new ones. A leatherworker in Rome? I suppose it beats shoplifting a grommet-punch from the Home Depot.
Clegg keeps his book self-focused, which is true to the fact and spirit of addiction, and most of the other characters are peripheral, including his own dying mother. Only one emerges in his own right: the boyfriend, Noah, who is invariably described in reviews of the book as “long-suffering.” That is one way to describe him. A more accurate would be to call him a terrible enabler. Whether or not Clegg intended it as such, his depiction of Noah is a teary-eyed dope whose infinite forgiveness only fuels the author’s decline. There is a particularly awful scene where Noah literally lays on a hotel bed holding Clegg’s hand while a cracked-out Clegg gets screwed by a male prostitute. He tells Clegg that it’s okay. He loves him. That’s a lot of things, but it isn’t exactly love.
Eventually Clegg gets shipped out West, gets into rehab, and seems to find sobriety. It occupies only a few pages, and is very oblique. There is an obscure suggestion that he is in a twelve-step program (“days are just days”), but it is tossed off. He reconciles with his father. He moves back to New York, where he immediately moves into a light-filled terrace apartment with views of the Empire State building. He does not work for a year. This is more or less the end of the book, and once again its crippling flaw. The bottom of Clegg’s barrel looks an awful lot like a kind of success. He may have fallen from his social class, but there is always someone with a wallet to make certain he doesn’t have to live like it.