There is a moment in Junky in which a psychiatrist asks William Burroughs’ narrator why he needs narcotics. His answer is to get out of bed in the morning, to function – “I need it to stay alive.” Later, managing to stay clean for two months but seeing his new existence as dull, he can’t help but remember the pleasure from his addiction, “your life draining into your arm three times a day.” Heroin was for him a necessary stimulant, a vitalizing giver not sapper of life.
In Bill Clegg’s Ninety Days the drug is different but the justification, at least while high, the same. However, during those golden moments of sobriety Clegg becomes lucid, more rational, and realizes that if he continues this course he will crash and burn and never wake up. The book continues where Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man left off, telling the unsettling story of a man’s attempt to purge his demons and get his life back on track. It is a painful uphill struggle, to the extent that in places we begin to wonder if its subtitle – “A Memoir of Recovery” – is a misnomer: memoir, yes, but with so many relapses recovery seems like an unattainable dream.
Fresh out of hospital and rehab, Clegg returns to an alien New York, all too aware he has lost everything – his literary agency, friends, lover, money. In addition he feels he has “lost fluency in a language that once was second nature.” He beats himself up over “the empire of people I’ve hurt” but then begins meetings and trades “war stories” with a support network. We follow Clegg as he strives to reach his goal of ninety clean and sober days to loosen the stranglehold of drug and alcohol addiction. Along the way he paints the starkest, bleakest portrait: money becomes tight (“my bank account thins and my debt thickens”); there is increasing and debilitating paranoia that he is being tailed by DEA agents; and bouts of self-loathing coalesce into suicidal thoughts.
When Clegg relapses the results are catastrophic. Rebuking the warnings of his coach to avoid past haunts (“trigger zones”), he looks up dubious old friends and dealers. Soon he is back on another two-day bender, “smoking crack and guzzling vodka with no food or sleep.” His one-step-forward-two-steps-back progress is both frustrating and distressing to witness. He slides and once again his sanity and bank balance take a tumble. Unlike Portrait of an Addict, Clegg concentrates on the daily battle against “the obsession to use” rather than the actual using. After about a hundred pages, however, he sketches in the dark details of one particular session. He inhales the smoke he’s been craving and the freight train he’s been waiting for finally hits him: “At last, the world cracks open and I fall through.” Days later he finds himself a wreck on the sofa, trawling Oprah for “redemption stories.”
Despite the squalor and the stupors and the black maelstroms of self-doubt, Clegg’s prose is mercifully limpid. His whole account is clear-eyed, rarely foggy on recollection and never once unstinting in presentation. This warts-and-all approach renders his memoir plausible and helps transform it into a cautionary tale, though one that doesn’t lecture, just bluntly states its sad case. Ninety Days is memoir as journey, and we find ourselves rooting for Clegg all the way – “every last lucky, lonely, destructive, delusional, selfish, wretched, insane, desperate second of it.”
In among the depictions of guilt-free highs and guilt-plagued lows are several intriguing descriptions of New York. At the beginning of the book we find Clegg returning to the city after completing four weeks in a drug and alcohol rehab. Manhattan is so otherworldly that “It looks like Oz…The crowded towers poke the sky with their metal and glass and in the midday haze look faraway, mythic, more idea than place.” Much later, during a hike on Bear Mountain, he looks down the Hudson River, again to Manhattan, and (perhaps with a touch of creative licence) listens to his friend Elliot vocalize his earlier thoughts – “It looks like Oz.” That evening he views the city from a roof terrace and takes in skyscrapers, streetscape and the Fourth of July firework display. “Never has the city looked so festive, so possible,” he tells himself.
At first glance “possible” seems an odd choice of adjective, until we remember Clegg is now clean and optimistic. More importantly, unlike Burroughs he no longer sees dependency as a way of life, or even life itself. Ninety Days pays off for writer and reader; it is worth hanging in there until the end. We appreciate it all the more for being a bumpy ride: it is sobering, yes, but also superb, and, perhaps thanks to Oprah, utterly redemptive.