2012, Little, Brown and Co.
|C4 Ratings...out of||10|
Ninety Days is Bill Clegg’s follow-up to his 2010 memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. While Clegg’s first memoir dealt with his headfirst fall from literary agent to crack addict, his newest purports to follow his slow, capricious path back to sobriety. Its title refers to the first major milestone in a recovering addict’s journey—the first ninety days of sobriety after which a healthy habitual routine stands a fighting chance against the cravings of addiction. As Clegg reports in the book, and as seems to be a standard credo among recovering addicts, the first ninety days of sobriety are the most difficult.
Clegg’s fight against his addiction is definitely arduous. And even though he eventually makes it to the ninety day mark, for most of the book that milestone is lofty and unattainable. He finds himself in a cycle of humility, temptation, and desire that lead to several relapses and oft expressed desires to end it all for good. Even so, I never really cared. As the books action ambles back and forth between attempted recovery and relapse, Clegg fails to evoke any empathy. Yes, I don’t have any idea what it takes to recover from a crack addiction, but when I pick up a memoir about recovery, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a little insight into how that recovery feels.
I know I’m going to sound like a prig for writing this, but I think my inability to empathize with Clegg has roots in a belief that Clegg never hit the proverbial “rock bottom.” I’m sure sobering up was incredibly difficult, and I’m sure the depths of Clegg’s drug-addled mania were maddening, and I’m sure Clegg’s suicidal inclinations were real and dangerously close, but how many bottomed-out addicts can put down first and last months’ on a Manhattan apartment while unemployed? How many have $6,000 worth of silver stashed in the back of their closets? How many have thousands of dollars’ worth of art, and friends who know how to sell it for them? How many are pre-approved for a $17,000 credit limit? Maybe it’s presumptuous, but I feel most hopeless addicts would have packed those assets into stems and smoked them to ash. I don’t blame Clegg for having those support bridges, but I do hold it against him that he doesn’t acknowledge them. It is hard for me to believe that someone is hopeless, when he is so clearly surrounded by many reasons to hope.
At times, Clegg does show an ability to write fluid and captivating prose. But unfortunately, those instances are few and far between. In particular, the moments of desire which lead to relapse are often vivid. The emotions during the first moments of high are genuine and relatable, as one can see in this description of a relapse:
When I inhale…the freight train I’ve been waiting for all day finally hits me. At last, the world cracks open and I fall through, leaving behind for a blessed second everything and everyone. I settle into the couch and, with eyes closed, hold on to what I know will be over soon. It will wiggle away as suddenly as it arrives, just as it always does, and I will, I know, sit on this couch for hours, burning my fingers and filling my lungs to court its return.
However, much like the highs themselves, those moments are fleeting. And when they’re gone we’re left with clunky, sloppy sobriety, and sentences like this:
A few months ago, I see him on the streets with a tall, tough looking friend of his from Georgia.
At first I thought maybe that was Clegg’s intention—to mirror the recovery process by making the moments of drug use poetic and beautiful while sobriety is drab and tedious—but if that was in fact the idea, it was a bad one: 90% of the book is sobriety, and that’s a whole lot of drab prose. In the end, I realized that the inconsistent prose was just another sloppy choice in a book that’s full of them (for example: erratic passage of time, awkward tense shifts, and even glossing over his first 90 days, which seems to defeat the point of the book).
I suppose that is my main qualm with Clegg’s second memoir: it is sloppily constructed. Clegg could have used another draft to work out the inconsistencies and to hone the prose. And yeah, I really have a hard time overlooking all of the help Clegg had getting to sobriety. Maybe he was blind to his many assets when he was living the moment, but certainly, in hindsight, he realizes how lucky he was. If he does, he never even mentions it in the book. That omission amounts to dishonesty, which will kill even the most carefully constructed memoir.
Similar Reads: Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg. James Frey’s non-memoir A Million Little Pieces deals with similar subject matter. And Lit by Mary Karr is an excellent memoir about recovery.
[A review copy was provided]
 Just a small rant about writing in the present tense: it’s almost always a bad choice in memoir writing. It’s usually the tool an unseasoned writer uses to make himself sound more prosaic. It falls flat most of the time. Writing in the present tense has a place in nonfiction—criticism, journalism, and scholarly work come to mind—and in the hands of a deft writer such as Stephen Elliott, it can even have a profound impact on the narrative. But most of the time in memoir, it’s just unnecessary. It especially serves no purpose in Clegg’s memoir.