three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
48-Sept-Oct-2010
By: 
Bill Clegg
user_rating: 
0

A Memoir

A-Portrait of an AddictBill Clegg is a literary agent in New York City. Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man is his first book.

The Topic: Bill Clegg seemed to have it all. The handsome, ambitious Connecticut native had taken the New York publishing world by storm before the age of 35, but his suave and affluent façade hid a dark secret: crack cocaine. His addiction reached a crisis point in 2005, when, over the course of two months, he squandered $70,000 partying in posh Manhattan hotels with drug dealers, cab drivers, and male prostitutes and descended into drug-fueled paranoia. Amid harrowing accounts of extended binges and the measured demise of career, reputation, and love, Clegg tries to make sense of his dependence by burrowing deep into the past and reliving his uneasy relationship with his father, his psychologically traumatizing difficulty urinating, and an early pattern of substance abuse.
Little, Brown and Company. 240 pages. $23.99. ISBN: 9780316054676

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Bill Clegg has written an exceptionally fine addition to a genre largely bereft of style, intelligence, and moral complexity. ... 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." Kirk Davis Swinehart

Globe and Mail (Canada) 4 of 5 Stars
"Whatever your perspective on addiction and addiction memoirs, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man is a book that will not soon be forgotten. ... The narrative has a floating quality that manages to be at once brutally specific and oddly poetic, but the substance reads almost like an anatomy of crack addiction." Susan Juby

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man is a mesmerizing bummer; reading it is like letting the needle down on a Nick Drake album. He tells his story in short, atmospheric paragraphs, each separated by white space, each its own strobe-lighted snapshot of decadent poetic memory." Dwight Garner

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"The approach is unflinching and rarely sentimental. ... Few memoirs so clearly, in crisp, absorbing prose, depict such a telling likeness of an addict." J. David Santen Jr.

Times (UK) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"While Clegg does a fine job of conveying the addict’s mindset--the manic sociability, the shivering loneliness, the perpetual anxiety about getting the next fix, and so on--his slightly self-conscious literary style never transcends the clichés of the subject matter. ... [His use of first person present tense and his solemn tone] grow tiresome after a while, as do his excessively detailed accounts of drug-taking preps and clean-ups." Zoë Heller

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"Clegg [provides] an endless tick-tock of the bags of crack, the rent boys, the A.T.M. withdrawals and hotel lobbies that served as a portal to the temporary crack dens he set up, with many, many bottles of room-service vodka to take the edge off. ... As his book progresses, Clegg himself seems bored by even the most piquant episodes." David Carr

Critical Summary

In this chilling debut, Clegg has written a serious and compelling, if somewhat detached, addition to the subgenre of "addiction memoirs." Clegg’s tight, elegant prose, earnest tone, and meticulous attention to detail call up a fairy tale world brutally transformed into a monstrous hell. While the New York Times Book Review and the Times considered the book tedious and clichéd, their comments appeared to be directed more toward the genre as a whole, whose repetitive descriptions of substance abuse are "amply familiar to anyone who has ever watched a single episode of Behind the Music on VH-1" (Times). Of course, reviewer David Carr has written his own tale of addiction, The Night of the Gun ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2008). Most critics, however, agreed with the Globe and Mail, which called Clegg’s unflinching, intelligent, and grim account "a skillfully conjured, slow-motion train wreck from which it’s impossible to look away."