Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Addict Clegg learns every day a battle
WE last left New York literary agent Bill Clegg at the end of his short, frank and fast-paced 2010 memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.
He had bottomed out after years of crack and alcohol abuse, having ruined his professional and personal life but promising himself that he will, finally, give rehab a serious shot.
Now, in Ninety Days, a similarly short, brisk and honest account, Clegg is back in the land of the living. Sort of.
At 34, he is "unemployable in a field I have worked for 12 years," without an apartment, broke and broken up with his boyfriend of eight years.
On the plus side, he has survived six weeks of hospital and rehab treatment. And with the temporary loan of a long-suffering friend's writing studio in Manhattan's West Village, and a sponsor to help him stay focused on his 12-step program, he's two months into his short-term goal of 90 clean days. That number, he explains, is the addiction world's minimum milestone "to mark a strong foothold on sobriety."
The drug-addict memoir has a long and distinguished history, and in recent years has come into a particular boom period.
One thinks, obviously, of James Frey's controversy-ridden A Million Little Pieces (which Clegg in fact references), but the New York Times media writer David Carr also made a mark with his book, The Night of the Gun, as did the American journalist David Sheff and his son Nic with their separate versions of Nic's teenage crystal-meth addiction.
Here in Canada, B.C. writer Susan Juby chronicled her battle with alcoholism in her 2010 memoir Nice Recovery.
What does Clegg add to the genre? Not a whole bunch, it has to be said, other than to distill the addict's self-recriminations and failures into their particular elements. Along the way he profiles several of his comrades in recovery, most memorably a former elementary school teacher, Polly, who lives with her twin sister, an even more pathetic abuser.
Clegg revisits his Connecticut family history from Portrait of an Addict, describing a distant alcoholic father, an enabling mother and younger siblings, some with similar problems. Through this we see the addict's personality as a complex brew of nature and nurture.
Needless to say, Clegg falls off the wagon, or Ninety Days would be no story at all. He compares his addict mind to "Bruce Banner turning into the Incredible Hulk."
"Once his muscles begin to strain against his clothes and his skin goes green, he has no choice but to let the monster spring from him and unleash its inevitable damage."
Clegg gives a full and fair account of the damage. We see him going on a three-day bender, trying to seduce a former addict who has pledged to keep him clean. We see him pawning his mother's silver collection, blowing his rent money on bags of crack. We see him acknowledging, from the balcony of this new apartment, his dark desire for oblivion: "If all else fails there are 17 floors and a hard sidewalk."
Mind you, we know he avoids that path, and other terrible ones, by the simple fact that this memoir has been written. It turns out that his hard-won sobriety arrives quietly, as does employment, without drama.
While his accomplishment is heady, it does not rule out setbacks. Whether he attains 90 days or 900, he learns that every day for the rest of his life is going to be a battle.
Free Press Books editor Morley Walker is a model of sobriety and steely self-control.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 J8