Bill Clegg’s ‘Ninety Days’ Can be Burned Through at an Amphetamine Pace

For the past half-decade or so, readers have been barraged by a slew of addiction memoirs, most notably (and infamously) James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. While the frequency of such books has certainly served to cast an oh-no-not-another-one pall over the genre, it is perhaps the very nature of addiction and those afflicted by it that serves as a greater detracting factor. The exasperatingly self-absorbed junkie, either celebrity or of moderate means, who demolishes his finances, all of his positive relationships, and otherwise sound physical health in favor of the sickening indulgence of yet another callow high, is a difficult character for many non-addicts to stomach, a distasteful pill that makes real empathy a prickly task at best.

New York literary agent Bill Clegg, in his debut memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man (Little, Brown, 2010), rehashes the spiral of such a man in a cautionary tale that, though vividly told, ends on a note that is vacant and decidedly unsatisfying. Clegg’s prose is electric; his rendering of a crack-fueled plunge from the top of the publishing world to getting serviced by a Brazilian hooker in a four-star hotel while his distraught boyfriend looks on evokes some of Bret Easton Ellis’ most disturbingly deadpan moments. But ultimately, his brief reminiscences of childhood trauma – his parents’ messy divorce and the ensuing resentment, a curious urination problem – do little to stifle the inherent groan-factor of another well-bred Connecticut boy turned Manhattan-socialite-slash-substance-jockey allowing his massively whiny narcissism to destroy a life that, though earned, is still one of enviable privilege.

Clegg’s second autobiographical effort, Ninety Days, while continuing the highly personal narrative, is refreshing in that the author, in order to make any real progress in his post-rehab recovery, must finally look beyond his own repeating demons and immerse himself in a community of addicts, many of whom are in much worse shape than he is. Far from heartwarming, the book is a prescient, superbly crafted glimpse of the frighteningly long-shot odds of getting – and staying – sober amidst a hell that seeks only to imprison its inhabitants in a void of deadly solipsism.

Subtitled A Memoir of Recovery, Ninety Days picks up where Portrait ends – Clegg returning from a rehab facility in White Plains back to Lower Manhattan, the scene of his latest and most epic crack, vodka, and prostitute binge, the one that, for all intents and purposes, ruins his life. Barred from the svelte apartment he once shared with his longtime boyfriend, Noah, and having accumulated massive debts in the from of rehab bills and fees related to the implosion of his once-burgeoning literary agency, not to mention thousands in unpaid drug purchases, he now relies on the hospitality of the handful of friends who will have anything to do with him and his rehab-appointed sponsor Jack, always “quick with a story that reminds me we’ve sunk to the same depths.”

After settling into an apartment with a rent he has no idea how to pay, he focuses on attending multiple daily meetings with fellow addicts, avoiding the enabler ghosts that still lurk only a phone call away, and trying to string together 90 consecutive sober days, a mark that often represents for addicts “a strong foothold in sobriety.” It’s a number that proves as daunting as the coke-laced cravings that pulsate, stronger with each waking moment.

The book’s delivery brilliantly mimics its predecessor — sharp, taut block paragraphs in a stripped-down present tense that creates an unflinching immediacy, the desire to be burned through at an amphetamine’s pace, and serves as the perfect vehicle for the terror of Clegg’s relapses, including a particularly unshakable scene featuring “two Asian guys – young, hip, bored, cute.” More importantly, Clegg’s meticulous eye provides the reader into the “rooms”, the multiple daily meetings where an entire spectrum of motley addicts congregate: Polly, the dog-walking skeleton whose bartender sister keeps her addled with constant all-night coke parties; Lotto, the prototypical tracksuit-wearing, screwed up city kid, in and out of more rehabs than he can remember; and Asa, the cute, seems-to-have-it-together redhead with a crush on Clegg, selfless but never immune to the seedy past that’s chasing him, chasing them all.

Reluctant at first to pursue relationships with characters, he would have, in Portrait, found unsavory – “How are these people, whom I didn’t know less than a month ago, how are they now the most important people in my life? My mind races with how unlikely it all seems, how arbitrary” – he forfeits much of his affected callousness and gives in to small miracles of kindness in the form of eleventh-hour phone calls, calming walks in a dog park, an open but firm palm snatching away his pipe. Clegg’s trademark matter-of-factness is never more disarming than during a moment of extreme tragedy when he is forced to play the role of sponsor, to shoulder the weight of another’s illness and showcase a humanism and a strength that had heretofore been too often lacking: “We laugh, the way addicts laugh about the agony of their using in the only way that makes it bearable: with each other.”

It’s not that the author portrays himself as a newly baptized saint. He regrets his actions during his mother’s ordeal with breast cancer, “when I turned up at the hospital the day after her surgery after I’d been up the night before smoking,” yet shows little remorse at using her for transportation and as a means to pay his rent. There are not enough moments like this, enough divulging into a past with a family towards whom Clegg acts ambivalent, even obstinate. But there are enough of them for this self-described crackhead to remain as frustratingly oblique yet fascinatingly flawed as only a post-postmodern urban junkie can.

Peripheral, yet no less interesting minutiae include Clegg’s weird Oprah addiction that leads him to critique one of her guests – a thinly (if at all) veiled James Frey – and his fictionalized memoir’s surprisingly widespread effect on addicts, how they read the book and stop going to meetings and attempt to get sober, and largely fail, based on willpower alone. And the ridiculousness of an American credit industry that provides a prolific drug user with no discernible income a card with a spending limit of thousands of dollars, another muddy facet of a culture, rife with girls who “barely look up from their gadgets”, that makes it seem hard, to Clegg, to not be an addict.

Ninety Days‘ penultimate chapter breaks character in favor of a somewhat bromidic Where-Are-They-Now? medley, but fortunately Clegg re-ups and delivers one last sucker punch in the book’s final pages, one last reminder that recovery never really ends, that the potential for collapse of everything one has built is as close as one easy snort, gulp, or flick of a lighter. If anything, this bleak meditation on human frailty serves as a much-needed reminder that as easy as it is to stumble, there will always be a pair of hands that have been bruised just as badly waiting to pull us back up and straighten us out, if we only open ourselves up enough to let them. And sadly, that’s often the hardest part.

RATING 7 / 10