Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, by Bill Clegg
The crack begins to show in a literary agent's memoir
Sunday 20 June 2010
Even if you consider many accounts of middle-class drug addiction as tending towards a self-imposed mess, you'd be hard pressed not to be captivated by the prose of Bill Clegg, a fallen angel (now redeemed – not least by this book) of the New York literary scene. Clegg's memoir of his crack-fuelled fall from grace, which has seen him momentarily rotate through 180 degrees from agent to author, is beautifully measured and adroitly paced (thanks in small part to the simple ploy of generous space between paragraphs), mixing a matter-of-fact eye for detail with just enough emotion to unsettle and engross.
The memoir almost falls into two discernible halves, with the first broadly answering the question of what happened and the second, how. The great achievement here is that the story, told as if it were a novel only loosely grounded in fact, is no less satisfactory for leaving questions hanging.
Interspersed with the machinations of how his addiction takes hold are episodes of Clegg's childhood trauma over a fear of urinating; they implicitly nudge the reader towards seeing inadequacy as at the heart of Clegg's malaise and consequent self-destruction. However, it is only later that this is writ large. He quotes WS Merwin to get to the heart of the matter: "I have been a poor man living in a rich man's house." Just a few lines before this, Clegg contemplates his cover being blown and it being revealed that, "I am not nearly as bright or well-read or business-savvy or connected as I think people imagine me to be."
Clegg, however, never seems to worry as much about his cover being blown regarding his monumental crack habit, mostly assured by the fastidiousness of the clean-up operation that he carries out in a series of anonymous hotel rooms. His priorities clearly skewed, readers are guided to find themselves more worried that the author will miss a literary lunch than be arrested or end up in hospital.
The rhythms of Clegg's addiction are so hypnotic, his prose billowing in the same beguiling way that the plumes of smoke from his crack pipe enthral him, that the tension, paranoia and ecstasy he experiences from it seem somehow restrained. This tautness is the product of honesty; there is no sensationalism (and no salaciousness, despite Clegg's libido). The consistency of mood helps the reader determine between fact and the author's paranoid fantasies of surveillance; though it also seems to trap emotional range in a kind of tonal amber, so that when he reaches his last act of excess before rehab, his desperate exaltations almost jar.
Despite this, the final movements of this drug-addled symphony (crack is, Clegg says, "the best sex, the most delicious meal, the most engrossing book") feel as claustrophobic and, yes, as nauseating (with a capital N), as a Sartre short story. The resolution sees Clegg empathise with all those his addiction has forced him to neglect and the empathy floods him as if it were another drug; all incredibly moving without trying to overwhelm the reader.
In interviews, Clegg says that he realises now that people weren't thinking about him anywhere near as much as he thought they were, so his self-conscious, self-destructive journey taught him a life lesson the hard way. Towards the end of the memoir, he recalls a line half-remembered from a book he read: "When it feels like the end of the world, it never is." Not only does this line reinforce his life lesson, it explains his commitment to his drug addiction as much as it does the hope he feels after he recovers from it.
This duality fits – another example of how Clegg has all his bases covered, how each passage breathes yet restricts, and achieves the most balanced mirror-image of his own life, yet with the ambiguity and tone of a novel. Addictive and masterful.
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