by Scott F. Parker
In the urgent, present-tense prose by now standard for addiction memoirs, Bill Clegg’s Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man recounts a prodigious attempt at self-destruction followed by his eventual recovery. It’s a familiar narrative, and one that necessarily undermines any suspense; the fact of the book’s existence evinces Clegg’s rehabilitation. The guaranteed redemption explains some of this sub-genre’s popularity, but there’s also the attraction of peeking into a world of unfamiliarity—in this case, the world of crack cocaine.
Opening his story in medias res, Clegg eagerly reveals the desperation of crack-addiction: “I can’t leave and there isn’t enough.” He’s six days into the month-long binge that is the book’s central story. During this binge he will blow, or rather burn, through a small beach’s worth of crack rocks and many thousands of dollars—paying for, in addition to drugs, all sorts of vodka, hotel rooms, and airfare he won’t use. It’s a committed attempt at self-destruction, and one of the author’s triumphs is to cop to the intentionality of this obliterating urge rather than present his addiction as simply a case of pursuing pleasure too far.
Clegg doesn’t feel compelled to offer a cause for his drug abuse, but in alternating chapters he does interrupt the story of his demise with flashbacks from his childhood. Until about halfway through the book when the flashbacks begin to coalesce into a real background and the narrator into a real character,Portrait relies on the immediacy of its language and crack-hit-length blocks of prose. The book comprises hundreds of compact scenes separated by white space, a strategy evocative of how memory works and reminiscent of Nick Flynn’s memoirs. These short passages have a tendency to reach for punchy endings that keep the reader moving on to the next one, and they occasionally get melodramatic. Take for example these lasts lines, all from the first chapter: “It’s daybreak and the dealers have turned off their phones”; “stems are destroyed”; “by some unwanted miracle my heart hasn’t stopped.”
It’s a relief in Portrait’s second half when Clegg stops trying so hard to impress the reader—as the tone cools it becomes easier to care about the narrator—but the reader never gets behind him all the way, because there just isn’t much there to get behind. Clegg fails to present a thoughtful guide through his drug-addiction. Instead, he leaves us with his drug-addicted former self for the majority of the book.
Here’s Clegg in reference to holding hands with his boyfriend, Noah, while having sex with a prostitute: “And I will remember how convinced I was that night—as I had been every night with him before—that knowing what he knew, seeing what he’d seen, putting up with what he chose to put up with, he was the only one who ever could. The question I never asked was why.” Why is indeed a good question that, as it goes unanswered, reveals the book’s biggest flaws. We know next to nothing about Noah, in fact, the central person in the narrator’s life. Late in the book, when Clegg writes, “He seems less like a person and more like a figment from a dream I once had, some nocturnal wonder I cannot revive after sleep, only remember,” all the reader can do is agree.
Clegg’s failure to think about why Noah put up with him is indicative of the book as a whole, which contains almost no reflection from the narrator. This style, seemingly motivated by the Hemingway iceberg principle, may work nicely in fiction but it doesn’t tend to suit memoir very well, and leaves this book feeling somewhat vapid. Lyrical and descriptive as Clegg’s writing can be, his reluctance to make sense of Portrait’s events reduces its reach.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010