In his memoir, “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man,” Bill Clegg describes the few times he tried to prepare his own crack. “I wasted the coke, burned my hands, and ended up with a wet glob that was barely smokable,” he writes. He’s not quite Woody Allen, sneezing into the cocaine in “Annie Hall.” But he’s not far off.
Whatever black comedy there is in Mr. Clegg’s book dwindles pretty quickly. “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man” is a mesmerizing bummer; reading it is like letting the needle down on a Nick Drake album. He tells his story in short, atmospheric paragraphs, each separated by white space, each its own strobe-lighted snapshot of decadent poetic memory. It’s an earnest style that mostly works. This is a short book that pulls you in and spits you back out before you have time to tire of it.
Mr. Clegg is a literary agent in New York City, but don’t come to his book sniffing for publishing gossip. There are no party scenes with Sonny Mehta. Ann Godoff does not leap naked into a swimming pool. The discreet Mr. Clegg doesn’t even mention the names of the writers he represents or, frankly, many books at all. If he’s well read, that’s among the few secrets he’s keeping to himself.
What this book does have — grim scenes in a crack house and behind a 7-Eleven in Newark aside — is an elite, stylized Manhattan milieu. There are meals at La Grenouille and drinks at the Bemelmans Bar. Among the boutique hotels Mr. Clegg holes up in to get high or have sex with anonymous men are the SoHo Grand and the Hotel Gansevoort. There are trips to Paris and London. This isn’t flea-bitten Bukowski territory.
Adding to the book’s sexpot glamour is Mr. Clegg himself, who in his dust jacket photograph, and especially in two recent full-page photos in New York magazine, seems as clear-eyed and clean-cut as a J. Crew catalog model. Glancing at a faded pile of recent addiction memoirs, here’s a salient truth: No one wants to read one of these things by a grizzled or potato-shaped or even middle-aged writer. We want our addiction memoirists to nearly die young and definitely stay pretty. Maybe that’s why, in bulk, these books aren’t better.
“Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man” is the story of how Mr. Clegg lost it all — his clients, his apartment, his loyal boyfriend, his sanity — one crack hit at a time. It’s a story that ranges over several years but finds its dramatic center of gravity during one especially dark two-month binge, during which Mr. Clegg manages to fritter away some $70,000 on crack and Ketel One vodka and on the elegant hotel rooms he often shares with greasy characters, including male hookers. He picks up a cabdriver by asking, “Do you party?”
This story is told in the present tense, alongside flashbacks to Mr. Clegg’s childhood in Connecticut. His father was a pilot for TWA, and not a warm and fuzzy guy; his mother wasn’t much more approachable. He doesn’t really blame them for his addiction, however, nor for his dramatic inability, as a boy, to urinate without first spending hours alone in the bathroom performing a desperate kind of rain dance.
What drove Mr. Clegg to crack? Mostly, it seems, it was a common-enough big city and publishing world malady: the towering inferiority complex. This memoir is laced with lines like, “This is a place for a sleeker, smarter, better-educated, and altogether finer grade of person.” And: “I am not nearly as bright or well read or business savvy or connected as I think people imagine me to be.”
Before insecurity could fully take root, however, there were other addict-in-training milestones. Sneaking Scotch, as a teenager, from his dad’s liquor cabinet. Snorting a line of crystal meth at 15 — his first illegal drug — off a box of mozzarella sticks with a grocery store co-worker named Max. Smoking pot daily, bales of it, in college.
Mr. Clegg was introduced to crack by an older married man from his hometown, a respected lawyer who also seduced him sexually. Here is Mr. Clegg on that first taste of crack: “It is the warmest, most tender caress he has ever felt and then, as it recedes, the coldest hand.”
Among the reasons to stick with “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man” is the lightly narcotized sensorium of Mr. Clegg’s prose. He nails the “weary authority” of the Empire State Building, with its “shoulders of colored light.” He describes swaying in time, while high, with another addict, the pair of them “like two underwater weeds bending to the same current.” He can write.
Stick with it, too, for its second half, which is thick with jittery drug-induced paranoia. (Mr. Clegg begins to think cabs and helicopters are following him, as well as guys in — the horror — cheap off-the-rack suits.) Along the way you’ll learn some things. Who knew that crack use made your contact lenses dry out, so that they pop right off your eyes?
At one point, Mr. Clegg hops into a cab and orders it to race away from his family, who’ve gathered to stage an intervention. As he roars off, he thinks to himself, “Like so many other moments, this one feels lifted from an after-school special or ‘Bright Lights, Big City.’ ”
Actually, his memoir doesn’t read much like either one of those things. But the first sentence of “Bright Lights, Big City” certainly captures the mood Mr. Clegg works to set: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time in the morning.”