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Review: Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, by Bill Clegg

Bill Clegg's harrowing tale of crack-cocaine addiction created a mixed reaction in me. The part of me that responds to effective writing and a dramatic story responded one way. The part of me that has been in recovery for alcoholism for more than 20 years responded another. 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.

Clegg, a high-flying young literary agent in Manhattan, had dabbled in drink and drugs since he was a teen. As a child, he had a distant father and a mysterious and cripplingly embarrassing affliction that left him with a sense of isolation and low self-regard. Describing his early years, he refers to himself in the third person present, creating a sense of both immediacy and detachment in the portrayal. He found that getting wasted gave him "a toehold in a blurry, blissful place. A place where he doesn't have to bring himself along. What he also loves is the dark project of it." Despite his heavy drinking and drug use, by the age of 30, he had co-founded a literary agency with a friend, had a devoted boyfriend and was widely regarded as a success. He had also discovered crack cocaine.

The memoir focuses on this later period, during which Clegg became fully enslaved to the drug. 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. Over the course of a few months, Clegg spent more than $70,000 on rock. His book is filled with vignettes of smoking crack, in the back of cabs (with and without the drivers) and in numerous hotel rooms. Clegg's descent is a skillfully conjured, slow-motion wreck from which it's impossible to look away. His handling of time, especially wasted time, has an undulating, telescoping quality. I raced through the book in an evening.

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Writing this book must have been like dancing with a dragon. People in recovery are told not to entertain their addictions, not to lavish them with attention and not to feed them with indulgent "war stories" about how much they used or what kinds of upside down happened when they used it. Romancing one's addiction is a good way to get loaded. While Portrait of an Addict doesn't romanticize crack cocaine, it is filled with abundant, unstinting and carefully wrought detail about the particulars of smoking it, and whatever Clegg experienced in the writing, it's not a book I'd recommend to newly recovering addicts.

I found myself wondering whether beautiful writing may obscure, rather than illuminate, the destruction. After all, how many descriptions of scorched stems and huge hits can one ponder before they start calling one's name? Some of the addicts I know get triggered just looking at an open flame. Handing them a book that goes into such excruciating detail about the process of scoring and using would be like handing them a grenade with the pin out. If, however, you are curious about what a well-funded, life-threatening crack bender looks like, you'll find no better portrayal. For me, the book became most effective on page 211, when the author talks about asking for help and ponders the lives affected by his addiction. It made me wish it were more than 222 pages long. That Clegg survived and is well enough to write a book this good is incredible, and I wanted to know more about what helped him to get clean and stay that way.

Every drug these days has its chronicler, and Bill Clegg has painstakingly documented the furtive and desperate business that is crack addiction, the scrabbling on the floor for dropped crumbs, the endlessness and voraciousness and ruthlessness. A horrifying scene with Clegg, his weeping boyfriend and a prostitute verifies that the personal devastation of addiction extends well beyond the addict. Ultimately, no matter how fine the rendering, there is nothing beautiful about addiction. As Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man makes clear, there are only the lies that we tell ourselves and that substances whisper in our ears while we tighten notch after notch on our belts as we disappear.

Susan Juby is the author most recently of Nice Recovery.

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