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Getting Out Alive.

Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man

by Bill Clegg

Little, Brown. 240 pages, $23.99

LIKE MOST college students, Bill Clegg and his roommates enjoyed having a good time. They smoked a little pot, drank, serial-dated women, pulled pranks, did cocaine, and got high again. Yes, it got them into trouble--they were kicked out of college--and Clegg was sometimes too wasted or hung over to function. Other than that, life was fun.

His college days came as somewhat of a relief after a tumultuous childhood, in which Clegg had "problems" with urination. He remembers spending hours in the bathroom before making a mess in relieving himself. His father often told him to "get over it" and Clegg finally did, after therapy and an accident that resulted in hospitalization. Once the problem had spontaneously resolved, Clegg completely forgot about it--until his mother got sick and other issues took over his life.

From what seems like a retrospectively long distance, Clegg writes of his introduction to smoking crack, which was a "gift" from the first man he ever had more than fleeting sex with. A hometown lawyer, someone Clegg had known forever, the man had invited Clegg to his apartment for a drink. At this time, Clegg was beginning to understand that he liked men more than women, and he understood what this invitation meant. They talked about the man's kids and his wife, made out a little, then the man disappeared into the bedroom. He came back with "milk-colored crystals" and a clear glass tube. After his first gulp of crack, Clegg says of himself: "He misses the feeling even before it's left him and not only does he want more, he needs it." From then on, he needed it all the time.

That night--that night of firsts--changed everything. Thereafter, Clegg repeatedly lied to his friends and family. When in Europe at an important film festival, he deserted his boyfriend Noah in order to fly home and get high. He started sleeping with other men in seedy hotels, wearing the same sweater until it was in filthy tatters, cutting nine extra notches in his belt to accommodate his weight loss, not bathing for weeks. Eventually, his business partner changed the locks, and Noah did the same thing on their shared apartment.

Reading Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man can be a toe-curling experience, and you may find yourself rushing from page to page, not because it isn't a good story (it is), but because the life that Clegg is describing is often painfully hard to endure. Starting with a major binge, then moving back and forth between confusing childhood memories, wistfully remembered recent events, and fuzzy recollections of being high, Clegg walks a tightrope between wry humor and wrung-out horror. His flippant tone would perhaps be out of place for someone who hadn't been a crack addict himself, but here it works, albeit in an oddly distressing way. Clegg's early memories are written in the third person, providing distance that lends itself to an ironic detachment. This provides an even sharper edge to what is a raw story of losing oneself and surviving to talk about it.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.
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Title Annotation:Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man
Author:Schlichenmeyer, Terri
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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