Rebecca's Reviews > Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man: A Memoir

Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg
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it was amazing
bookshelves: memoirs, absolute-favorites, addiction

One of the finest memoirs I’ve come across (and I read a heck of a lot of them). To be great, a memoir has to plunk you right in the middle of a set of experiences that might be diametrically opposed to your own and make it all so real that you feel you are living it. Through this book I followed literary agent Bill Clegg on dozens of taxi rides between generic hotel rooms and bar toilets and New York City offices and apartments; together we smoked innumerable crack pipes and guzzled dozens of bottles of vodka while letting partners and family members down and spiraling further down into paranoia and squalor.

Every structural and stylistic decision works: the present tense, short paragraphs, speech set out in italics, occasional flashback chapters (including to the childhood shame of an odd urinary condition) distanced through third-person narration. Clegg achieves a perfect balance between his feelings at the time – being out of control and utterly enslaved to his next hit – and the hindsight that allows him to see what a pathetic figure he was becoming. The book’s last chapter, the last paragraph in particular, is just about breathtaking.

I’ll try not to go overboard with quotes, but here are two excellent passages, one describing his initiation into crack with an older man, a former neighbor, and the other freezing the moment when he realizes just how low he has sunk:

The taste is like medicine, or cleaning fluid, but also a little sweet, like limes. The smoke billows out into the living room, past Fitz, like a great unfurling dragon. As he watches the cloud spread and curl, he feels the high at first as a flutter, then a roar. A surge of new energy pounds through every inch of him, and there is a moment of perfect oblivion where he is aware of nothing and everything. A kind of peace breaks out behind his eyes. It spreads down from his temples into his chest, to his hands and everywhere. It storms through him—kinetic, sexual, euphoric—like a magnificent hurricane raging at the speed of light. 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.

My towel comes off again, and I see in the mirror a rickety skeleton—elbows and knees and knuckles bulging like bolted wooden joints strung with thread. I am the marionette I have seen hundreds of times before but never thought was me. I am only sticks and strings and spasms. Money gone. Love gone. Career gone. Reputation gone. Friends gone. Hope gone. Compassion gone. Usefulness gone. Second chances gone. And if there had been any hesitation about dying, that’s gone now, too.

I don’t know how anyone reading this could fail to feel a strong pang of compassion for Clegg. The fact that he is even alive after what he put his body through – let alone a recent Booker Prize nominee for his debut novel – is astonishing. I hope to make time for that novel very soon.
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Reading Progress

June 21, 2012 – Shelved
October 30, 2015 – Started Reading
October 30, 2015 – Shelved as: memoirs
November 7, 2015 – Finished Reading
November 11, 2015 – Shelved as: absolute-favorites
April 12, 2016 – Shelved as: addiction

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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Glenn Sumi Great review, Rebecca! You brought this harrowing book right back to me. I think I quoted one of these same passages in my own review as an example of amazing prose. Was underwhelmed by his novel, but I stand by this powerful memoir.


message 2: by Sonja (new)

Sonja Arlow Wow I really loved your quoted. I will definitely lookout for this one


message 3: by Jen (new)

Jen Sounds intriguing...looks like a need to add.


message 4: by Jennifer (new) - added it

Jennifer Masterson I really want to read this one now. Great review Rebecca! I loved your quotes!


message 5: by Lynda (new)

Lynda Great review. Have jjust ordered now


Rebecca Thanks, all. Glenn, I reread your review after I'd posted mine, but decided to keep that quote in there -- I think it's such a powerful one. I'm going to try to read his novel by the end of the year; it'll be interesting to see where I fall on the spectrum. I know a lot of people love it but have not read his memoirs. Thanks for pointing out the film and the "sequel" memoir in your review -- I'm going to be sure to seek them out.


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