A drug-fueled ride direct to rock bottom

‘‘Portrait,’’ Bill Clegg’s first book, chronicles a two-month-long binge in 2005, a relapse after nine months of sobriety. ‘‘Portrait,’’ Bill Clegg’s first book, chronicles a two-month-long binge in 2005, a relapse after nine months of sobriety. (Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)
By Liz Raftery
Globe Correspondent / July 6, 2010

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Bill Clegg’s “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man’’ is not a stereotypical drug memoir, if there is such a thing. Instead of the familiar seedy underbelly, Clegg’s story is set in the less explored world of upper-class addiction amid glitz and glamour. As a successful literary agent nursing an addiction to crack, his drug dens are high-end, $500-a-night Manhattan hotels, where he orders bottle after bottle of room-service vodka and has no trouble footing the bill in the morning. His addiction derails obligations such as a trip to the Berlin Film Festival for his boyfriend’s film premiere. “Trainspotting’’ it’s not.

“Portrait,’’ Clegg’s first book, chronicles a two-month-long binge he embarked upon in 2005, a relapse after nine months of sobriety during which he ran his relationship, agency, and savings account into the ground.

Adopting an admirable warts-and-all approach, Clegg presents eyebrow-raising facts and figures with an almost clinical detachment indicative of his mindset at the time. The sums of money he spends on hotel rooms and drugs during his bender are stunning, and his recollection of nonchalantly going to get his hair cut in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, oblivious to the morning’s events, is especially disturbing.

He admits his narcissism and owns it, touching only peripherally on the ripple effect his addiction had on his agency partner, employees, authors, family, friends, and boyfriend, all of whom remain anonymous.

Clegg’s prose, while pretentious at times, is graceful and poetic, maintaining an inverse relationship with his sanity. The most heightened, elegant descriptions are of his descent into drug-fueled hysteria in the days before he is committed to a psychiatric ward.

Approaching his own childhood as if it were a case study, Clegg narrates flashback scenes in the third person and the events surrounding his two-month bender in the first. He draws parallels between his later clandestine drug use and an embarrassing bathroom ritual that plagued him from childhood through his early teens, but thankfully stops short of laying the blame for his addiction on his upbringing (which, aside from an overbearing father, seems quite privileged and unremarkable), choosing instead to focus on aspects of his own personality.

“Portrait’’ offers appalling insight into the logic and reasoning (or lack thereof) of an addict. Clegg’s account of the first time he tries crack simultaneously concedes its allure and raises a red flag: “It is the warmest, most tender caress he has ever felt and then, as it recedes, the coldest hand. He misses the feeling even before it’s left him and not only does he want more, he needs it.’’

Condensed into paragraph nuggets that make for a quick read (the book’s climax, in particular, is a real page-turner), “Portrait’’ nevertheless doesn’t rank among the upper echelon of addiction memoirs. The narrative is manic and unfocused, jumping from scene to scene like a nonlinear slideshow and leaving the reader confused about both chronology and whether certain events actually happened or were the result of Clegg’s drug-induced paranoia. The fact that this technique is clearly intentional, meant to reflect the author’s own crack-addled mental state, makes it no less frustrating.

Though “Portrait’’ is loaded with flashbacks, for the most part we see Clegg only when he’s already at rock bottom. Absent are the more intriguing issues, like how he was able to build a successful literary agency from the ground up while battling a crack addiction, and the strain his drug use and resulting infidelity placed on his relationship.

“Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man’’ is a quick hit, a brief glimpse into a life and career surrounded by more questions than answers. But like Clegg himself feels at so many points throughout the book, the reader is left wanting more.

Liz Raftery, a freelance writer based in New York, can be reached at


By Bill Clegg

Little, Brown, 240 pp., $23.99