Compelling if uneven memoir
Walk along the edge with this strikingly gifted writer as he battled addiction to crack-cocaine, writes Donal Lynch
Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man
Bill CleggLittle, Brown, €25
Bill Clegg's much-hyped memoir starts out with two obvious strikes against it. First, there is the title -- it might seem clever to nod to Joyce in this way (as countless authors have done), but it sets the writer up for unflattering comparisons and accusations of literary pretension.
Second, it's another addiction memoir. These were all the rage in the Nineties and our shelves are heaving with examples from the likes of James Frey and Mary Karr.
Can we take yet another voyeuristic trip into someone else's druggy degradation?
Yes We Can and the reason is simple. Clegg is a spectacularly gifted new writer, who has delivered a memorable, if occasionally uneven, debut. It has its voyeuristic thrills, sure, but Clegg taps into some nerve that lurks inside most of us -- the feeling that one day we will be Found Out and the whole flimsy edifice of our lives will come crashing down.
The book shuttles back and forth between childhood recollections, during which Clegg's father berates him for wetting the bed (he's "lowering the value of the house") and the horrific landscape of his adult addiction to smoking crack cocaine. It's clear he's showing us how and why things became so messy later, but the descriptions of Clegg's early life sometimes fall short. Written in that annoying faux-Joycean third person present tense, they have the whiff of someone who would pick that title for the book.
As he reaches early adulthood, he makes himself and his friends sound like American versions of the Famous Five -- too twee and perfect by half as they share stories of which books they adore. These are but blips, however, to be endured as we get to the stark, compelling unravelling of his adult life in Manhattan.
He was (and is) a handsome and successful literary agent, who sets up his own agency and assembles an impressive roster of writers. He lives on Park Avenue with his equally successful boyfriend Noah, who works in the movies and attends film festivals. On the surface, then, everything is perfect. But the business is losing money and the boyfriend is the caretaker, the watcher, who appears forlornly at hotel rooms while Bill is inside, strung out, or pleadingly phones him from Europe as he fails to get on yet another flight.
Much of this book has the urgent pace of a chase or a heist and there is a constant sense that Clegg is on the run. In his drug-addled head, it's from FBI agents and cops, but in reality it's the mundane rhythms of life he is fleeing. There is a sense of walking along the edge with him, hoping people won't notice how strung out and skinny he is, praying for solitude. He longs for empty hotel rooms, where he can even out another jittery high with two bottles of vodka.
He makes you understand the high, that crack is "the best sex, most delicious meal, most engrossing book". He often puts the consequences to one side with the (for him) calming thought that this hit from the pipe may be the one that gives him a fatal heart attack. As mental images of his worried boyfriend assail him, he "exorcises" them with more of the drug.
If the book has a hero, it is Noah, the unflinching archangel who appears at key moments. There is one memorable scene in which he confronts Clegg in a hotel room, and holds his hand while Clegg gets high and has sex with a hustler, all the while telling him it will all be okay. For the author, the most shameful thing has come to pass and feels a mixture of debauched satisfaction and sacrilegious approval. If this makes the book sound like some sensational litany of misadventures, it isn't. He writes nothing for effect and there is a spare, matter-of-fact quality to Clegg's prose that makes his trials seem even more horrific and understandable.
Of course, we know that there will be the happy ending of best-selling memoir to be excerpted in Vanity Fair. But still the crocuses that spring up near the end seem a little sudden. Not to spoil things, but the manner in which he slays the crack dragon seems a little like going out for a breath of fresh air, looking at the birds and realising he does not need the drug any more. He also seems to be hedging with regard to the people around him, wary perhaps of laying blame at anyone's feet but his own, or even discussing them in much detail. This is probably emotionally healthy, but it gives the book a slightly unfinished quality.
Still, Clegg has crafted something very special, something that at its best soars far above the rank and file of its overcrowded genre. It lives up to the hype.