"Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man"
By Bill Clegg
Little, Brown & Company; 240 pp.; $23.99
Bill Clegg is proof, if any were needed, that you never can tell what demons lurk behind a polished façade. How did a dashing young literary agent—a nice middle-class boy from Connecticut—lose himself in an alternately fetid and glittering underworld of sex, drugs, and booze? Just what, exactly, did one of publishing’s brightest prospects do to himself—and to those he loved—when he fell off the edge of the earth for two months in 2005?
In his much-anticipated first book, “Portrait of an Addict as Young Man,” Bill Clegg has written an exceptionally fine addition to a genre largely bereft of style, intelligence, and moral complexity. But “Portrait of an Addict” is equally a book about coming of age in a world dramatically unlike the world of your parents and discovering, along the way, that you possess gifts long obscured by a high wall of anguish. Clegg’s memoir is “the gestation of a soul,” as Richard Ellmann once said of Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
At first blush, Clegg’s hardly seems an unusual story. Surely we’ve heard it all before or think we have, simply by glancing at the proliferation of addiction memoirs that crowd the shelves of Target and Barnes and Noble. Most of these books lack subtlety and grace; they are loud and boastful, not unlike the “war stories” that recovering addicts love to recount among themselves and, indeed, to anyone willing to listen. “Portrait of an Addict” is altogether different—beautifully rendered in spare and elegant prose, a rumination on the human condition that recalls William Styron’s memoir of depression, “Darkness Visible.”
Clegg’s searching intelligence and magnificent writerly talent should come as no surprise to the authors he represents and the editors with whom he’s worked for seventeen years. Clegg’s success turned heads from the first. Before his thirty-fifth birthday, he’d ascended through the hierarchical ranks of New York publishing, started his own literary agency, and boasted a stable of literary stars. But, as Clegg shows without a trace of self-pity, he didn’t feel like the man people took him to be. In fact, New York—the city in which he appeared to feel so incredibly at ease—stoked insidious anxieties about his intellect, background, and education. The indifferent, hard-drinking, and sexually confused recent college graduate who’d arrived in New York in the early 1990s hadn’t quite ceased to exist. By 2005, when crack finally laid waste to Clegg’s fondest dreams and ambitions, everyone but his dearest intimates was stunned.
Like any number of smart, ambitious people eager to remake themselves in big cities the world over, Clegg suffered from some variation of the imposter syndrome. Clegg is too modest in “Portrait of an Addict” to reveal the secret of his celebrated success as a nurturer of literary talent. But his charm and empathy are apparent enough. His violent struggle to silence his internal naysayers calls to mind James Boswell’s own struggle to establish himself in London, at the age of twenty-two, while waging war against all that he despises in himself. Clegg wouldn’t be the first to smooth his passage through unfamiliar settings with the aid of cocaine and vodka. Or the first to look at the man he’d become and marvel, incredulously, that he’d succeeded in fooling his greatest admirers. But he writes with rare precision and delicacy about the many-headed hydra that is addiction. For this reason alone, “Portrait of an Addict” deserves to become a classic of psychiatric literature—a book to which doctors turn to experience what few people can explain in conversation, much less capture on the page. “I am nowhere and belong nowhere. I can see how it all happens—the gradual slide down, the arrival at each new unthinkable place—the crack den, the rehab, the jail, the street, the homeless shelter, a quick shock and then a new reality that one adjusts to. Am I now in the purgatory between citizen and nobody, between fine young man and bum?”
Clegg narrates two stories in “Portrait of an Addict,” each inseparable from the other—one about a gentle boy emotionally hobbled by the difficulty he has urinating and another about a man at loose ends in the city of his dreams. At the age of five, “Billy” routinely spends up to two hours in the bathroom trying to go. But he can’t. He listens, terrified, for the loud banging on the bathroom door and the angry, reproachful voice of his father. “What are you DOING?” And so he finds out-of-the-way places where he can stand and wait for the urine to flow. One day, Billy’s father—a gruff, hard-drinking TWA pilot with substantial worries of his own—drives his son to consult a specialist in Boston. “There is nothing physically wrong with you!” his father tells Billy on the ride back to Connecticut.
The senior Clegg—his son later realizes—probably couldn’t fathom how to deal with a boy whose trouble had no identifiable cause. But in a disastrous effort to correct the problem, he tells Billy that his shameful secret will soon become apparent to his friends and their parents: “That it’s just a matter of time before they catch on, and once they do, there will be no way they’ll allow such a mess, such a monster, in their houses.”
“Harrowing” is far too banal and insipid a word to describe Clegg’s ugly (and rather swift) descent into crack addiction. “Portrait of an Addict” should be read in a single sitting. No one I know has been able to put the book down. Clegg’s recollections of his two-month binge in stylish New York hotels and sordid crack houses—where he passes days and nights with a raft of characters, including, among others, a high-priced Brazilian hustler—will keep you reading till dawn. He has a light touch, especially when he’s writing about sex. Perhaps there is no untangling his addiction from the fact of his visceral attraction to men, which he acknowledges after college, while living in New York with his girlfriend. In one of the book’s most memorable scenes, Clegg tells of smoking crack for the first in the New York apartment of an old family friend—a married lawyer and father in his sixties—who exhaled the smoke into his mouth and starts kissing him. “Nothing before this has been as thrilling,” he writes. “It will be a dizzy blur of smoke and skin, and it will be the only time he ever does this drug where doom does not eclipse bliss, where the two aren’t immediately at war.”
But it’s really Clegg’s boyhood memories that stick with you. There is little Billy on a school trip to New York, unable to reach his parents on the phone and so excited by the city that he regales the operator with tales of his adventure. And there is Billy’s first love, a bookish and self-possessed girl in his third grade class, who teaches him to love books and tells him which titles to read. These crystalline reminiscences make “Portrait of an Addict” a winning tribute to the past. The liver may be a forgiving organ, but so, it turns out, is the brain.
Many people, for better or worse, never have to look too closely at themselves in the mirror. Recovering addicts have no choice but to gaze long and hard. And what they discover in the mirror isn’t always pleasant to behold. Clegg confronts the usual wreckage: a shattered eight-year relationship with a remarkable, long-suffering filmmaker named Noah, financial disaster, and so on. Then, too, there is the maddening realization that no solitary explanation for his addiction exists. Genetic predisposition? Sexual repression? Shyness and insecurity?
You don’t have to be in recovery to understand that the world often looks better from a considerable distance. Each of us makes our own fog. For Clegg, the work of dispersing it will not end any time soon. Writers and artists, like those who write about them, have been known to wonder if getting well spells the end of brilliance and ingenuity. Not in the instance. Bill Clegg has repaired his career and, with this book, he joins the company of writers worth hearing from again. He has salvaged his friendships, too, and forgiven his parents for being who they are. It’s plain to see that people stuck by him because they enjoy his company, because he inspires fierce loyalty. Now, at last, Bill Clegg seems capable of believing it.
Kirk Davis Swinehart, a frequent contributor to the Tribune, teaches history at Wesleyan University.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun