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Revolting, but Effective
on July 25, 2010
When I asked for advice about how to judge a piece of art, one of my English Lit professors recommended that I ask myself: "Does this (art) succeed in that which it attempts to do?"
After applying this handy advice while considering Bill Glegg's "Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man," I have to say that his memoir is ultimately effective. It may not be ultimately satisfying for the reader (the recollections of childhood struggles with toilet issues are compelling but maddeningly opaque; his recovery is hardly mentioned), but reader satisfaction isn't the point.
What this book does is effectively capture and represent Clegg's nightmare tailspin into crack cocaine addiction and his final weeks-long binge. Assuming that this is what the author intended the book to be about, it is very well done. I can't be 100% positive because I've never used crack myself...but after reading this, I think that I have an idea. It isn't pretty.
Relentless paranoia. Drugs, sex with random people, latenight visits by crack dealers, ignoring and evading the people who care about him, drinking liters of vodka, experiencing drug-induced psychosis, torching his life. Humiliating and degrading himself. And for what? The way that he write it, during this binge, the crack high does not sound fun at all. But Clegg is not using to get high. He is using to stay ahead of the avalanche that is his past and the consequences of his behavior.
Clegg is not a likable narrator. He is not sympathetic (some of his childhood memories made me sad for him, though). Other reviewers have remarked about how self-absorbed and narcissistic he is, and they are correct. Junkies are self-absorbed and narcissistic. They are greedy, destructive, abusive, and incapable of love or trust. In this book, Clegg tells it like it is. I have to hand it to him--he's frank about the bridges he burned, the friends he exploited and terrified, the colleagues he left hanging or abandoned, and the loved ones (especially his long-suffering and somewhat codependent bf/partner) he betrayed. Maybe when he wrote it, he was working on one of those steps (in the 12 steps) that involves making a fearless personal inventory, or recognizing what you've done wrong to others, or whatever step it is...I have no idea, but I'd believe it if I heard it.
And yes, as some of the other reviewers have mentioned, the author comes accross as a spoiled snob with entitlement issues. He's not binging in a crack house, obviously, he's binging in 4-star manhattan hotels. As I read it, his homosexuality was accepted warmly by his social and professional group. He spent more money on this binge than most people make in many months. Readers may find this distasteful. Lord knows that I did, though the feeling was offset somewhat by the knowledge that I did not envy him one tiny bit. For me, what grated the most was his reference to the (hallucinated) FBI/DEA/Police/Govt Agents as "Pennies," as in, J.C. Penny's, as in the agents are dressed in clothing purchased from J.C. Penny's (meaning working/middle class, tackey, low-rent, unfashionable). He sees "Pennies" everywhere. He also mentally sneers at an airplane captain who ejects him off of the plane because he is suspiciously inebriated. Even though he is a degenerate junkie by this point, Clegg contemptuously notes the captain's "hokey" uniform and its inferior tailoring. He's obnoxious.
But he recollection is honest, and his writing is skillful. He can turn a phrase, he is clearly literate and talented. And given the repitition of the material, his descriptions are not repetitive or overly familiar, which is a feat in and of itself.
This is not a story of addiction, from beginning to end, with a character arc. This is a portrait of addiction. If you approach the book with that in mind, I think that you will be quite satisfied with the story.