Portrait Of An Addict As A Young Man by Bill Clegg

By | on June 3, 2010 | 4 Comments

I heard about this book six months ago, got my ARC, picked it up and put it right back down. It meant nothing to me, because I knew who this guy was and it sounded hollow. Bill Clegg is a literary agent in NYC, probably one of the most sought after agents in the book business. Over the last ten years as I struggled to write novel after novel, I’ve sent queries to Mr. Clegg, several in fact, and someone in his office is always polite enough to send a xeroxed form letter telling me, “Dear Writer, despite its obvious merit, your book does not meet our needs.” Something like that, dismissive, and fading, like all rejection letters. I used to save them, hundreds of letters (not all from Clegg’s office), then JE told me to throw them away.

Bill Clegg is a sex addict, drug addict and highly evolved member of the literary elite in Manhattan. Even if he is sober, he’s recovering, always. He’s part of a gang of non-writers who man the pearly gates of the publishing business and only accept one-half of one-half of a percent of what is submitted to them, usually through recommendations. So why is it that during the launch of Mr. Clegg’s own agency did he fall down the rabbit hole of drug addiction? And I mean this guy fell hard, spending countless dollars on crack, vodka, hotel rooms, (swanky) male escorts, and ludicrous amounts of money on taxis. He always seems to be in one, I couldn’t help but notice.

I was thrilled to read this book, it got better with each page, despite the fact that Bill Clegg and James Frey are on the same wavelength. Now I’m the first guy to defend Frey, and he’s a friend of the blog, and I think it was silly of “that woman” to put Frey on the cross over what was believed to be lies (proved or otherwise). It was his life story, everyone embellishes their lives. We’re all liars, that’s for sure. I’ve read this book before and it was harsher than Clegg’s, it was called A Million Little Pieces. But Clegg isn’t asking for forgiveness, and he doesn’t want to shock. It’s basically a memoir about how fucked up his life got because he struggled with a childhood illness that prevented him from peeing, plus he found out that he is gay, and struggled with it. It also turns out that he had shitty parents – certainly not the first person to have a set of those in the bedroom down the hall.

There is a wonderful moment at the start of this story where I thought it was Clegg as an adult telling this story, and it was a shred of memory as a child, who is having a horrible time peeing. Clegg describes a mother with breast cancer, and a TWA pilot for a father who wasn’t around and when he was, he seemed bad. I feel for Clegg in these pages, but he doesn’t want me to. Or does he? Why would he publish this? Why would he spend three weeks writing the first 130 pages and then leave the manuscript on Jennifer Rudolph Walsh’s front door, (another uber lit agent in the gilded city) if he didn’t want to get attention? That’s the initial reaction I had, but in reflection, he probably did it because it made him feel good to write about it.

There is a lot of John Cheever in these pages, whether Clegg will admit it or not. Clegg lived a Cheever life, or a character that Cheever often wrote about; an educated suburban man, stuck in a job/relationship with his emotional needs not being met – like married men who have desires that crop up unexpectedly and feelings that don’t jive with the times. Clegg talks about having been to college where he was left to his own devices, and about trysts in train station bathrooms with strange men. Sex seems nasty and forbidden, at least that’s how Clegg tells it. There are parts of this book that remind me of Cheever’s journals, the honesty, the brutal truth of life and how it’s admirable not only to face up to it, but accept what you’ve become. But my question, when all is said and done, is if Bill Clegg didn’t write this and someone else did, would it be published? But that’s not the case because he did write it. We’re taken on a hell of a journey, but even Clegg realizes that his drug use is boring and repititous, even shallow, especially for a guy that writes about his life with an acute specificity.

Around the last third of this book a pattern of suicide emerges and takes center stage. At first Clegg isn’t aware that he is trying to erase himself but slowly it dawns on him, and his efforts to try and kill himself slowly wrap their tentacles around his neck, until after a business lunch, 9-11 and more drug use than anyone can endure, he checks into a trendy downtown hotel with the fortification to release his self from this mortal coil.

During all this self destruction Clegg builds a nest of nasty dealers and losers to share in the downward spiral, and loses most of his family and friends in the process. But what is he really running from? Is the need for disconnection that severe? Is it great to be that alone? Great to be high, so much so that it is all you crave, the next high? As a guy who knows a thing or two about it, the answer is yes, it is great, it does feel good (especially if you’re depressed), and I can see why Clegg did what he did. I made a gross generalization at the start of this review about agents being non-writers, and it may be true, but is it harder to write a book than it is to sell one? Say whatever you want about literary agents, but Bill Clegg can write like a motherfucker.



4 Responses to “Portrait Of An Addict As A Young Man by Bill Clegg”

  1. June 3, 2010

    DH Reply

    This is one of your best posts, JR. And that’s saying quite a lot.

  2. June 3, 2010

    DH Reply

    This is one of your best posts, JR. And that’s saying quite a lot.

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  4. June 2, 2012

    Tishattar Reply

    The love chapter was horrific. I’ve been there and he described that moment exactly how it feels, in a most primal form of pleasure and pain that rips your fucking heart out.  What I want to know is where’s Noah in all this I want to know how Noah is doing as he too went through the war of addiction. He is quite the sympathetic character. Noah if you’re listening “I feel ya, brother” You were the brave one.

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