Addicts unanimous

Pub date July 20, 2010

LIT What is it about addiction memoirs? Like Pringles — something food junkie Frank Bruni might know something about — you just can’t have one. They’re easy to devour and easy to digest, as compulsively consumable as the impulsions they’re filled with.

While they certainly won’t have the final say in the matter, two recent addiction memoirs, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man (Little, Brown, and Company; 240 pages, $23.99) by Bill Clegg and Born Round (Penguin, 368 pages, $16) by Frank Bruni, fit the genre’s high-stakes bill.

“I can’t leave and there isn’t enough,” declares the first line of Portrait, as Clegg stares at the crumbs in a bag of crack and the crumbs of his successful career as a literary agent. This is only the beginning of what quickly becomes a journey into an all too lucid nightmare.

The articles in the title suggest that Clegg’s story — while not anonymous the way Go Ask Alice was in the ’70s when readers were convinced of its authenticity — isn’t remarkable because addiction is, well, wholly unremarkable. Clegg makes this clear in his episodic telling of day after day, night after night of crack binges and self-inflicted explosions and implosions.

Clegg’s prose is like beautiful quicksand — calm in its capture, deadly in its swallow. In some of the book’s ugliest moments, he abstracts himself from the mire through third-person, conjuring an out-of-body experience and pressing himself against the glass case of his own madness. ” … He feels the high at first as a flutter, then a roar … It is the warmest, most tender caress he has ever felt and then, as it recedes, the coldest hand.” The book’s brazen unsentimentality is its best and most addictive ingredient.

Yet whatever goes down comes up. There’s always the flipside to addiction and consumption: expulsion. While Clegg, with the crack toke count rising, arrives at a sickly ectomorphic physique — perfectly captured in the perhaps unfelicitously cartoonish book cover — Frank Bruni, in his college years, aims for a similar build with the help of amphetamines and bulimia. In Born Round, he “regurgitates” — his words, not mine — his insatiable struggle with appetite as he moves up the food chain from addict to critic. It’s something he believes he was “congenitally rigged” for, he tells me in a phone interview.

Born hungry into a large Italian family of enablers, Bruni pokes fun at his gut — and his gastronomical gusto — with flippant prose that puts everything out on the proverbial five-course table. Food is Bruni’s own version of crack, and Born Round shows how his diet stood in the way of promotions, led to body dysmorphia, and found him getting cozy with the fridge on date night. (“It was Haagen-Dazs or love. I couldn’t have both.”)

In working with a genre that’s been tried-and-sometimes-true (think James Frey’s 2003 A Million Little Pieces), these books beg the question: Do we really need another addiction memoir?

“I didn’t think of keeping it fresh or whether or not the world needed another one,” Clegg tells me when I broach the question. “The landscape of other addiction memoirs didn’t occur to me. The writing of [Portrait] preceded any idea of it being published. When I first started, it was just a transcription of memories while I was in rehab.”

Bruni, former food critic for the New York Times and still a writer there, performs a similar rewinding of the memory-tape. He even goes back to a time when, as a toddler, he wept for a third hamburger. “I couldn’t just sit down and … reproduce chapters of my life,” he says during our conversation. “I had to do an in-my-head interview with myself like I would with a profile subject.”

Bruni is among a minority of men in dialogue about eating disorders today. “Almost all the discussion about eating disorders is focused on women,” he says. “Society … tells men to be stoic and that talking about ooey-gooey vulnerabilities is not masculine.”

Both memoirs get at the heart of addiction’s tedium. In each tawdry vignette of Clegg’s cracked-out narrative, he moves like a sleepwalker with no hope of waking, prodding the underbelly of New York in the mean search for a fix. It’s a broken record: cab ride, hotel room, cab ride, hotel room, and the paranoia in-between. These urban encounters are the stuff of Hubert Selby Jr.

Bruni moves at a like rhythm, throwing up meals as if it were breathing or blinking: a habit he just can’t kick. Something, as he writes, “encoded in [his] genes.”

Perhaps the act of buying into a memoir is like paying admission for a nasty, self-indulgent carnival (for example, Eat Pray Love). Or perhaps it’s just fuel for postmodern narcissism. Ex-denizens of addiction’s terrain will marvel at how both Bruni and Clegg balk at blaming others. Though if I were Bruni, I might blame his mom and her bacon-wrapped hot dogs.

There are moments in Portrait where Clegg peers beneath the detritus to blame some bad parenting, but in the end, he really blames no one. “The process of repair will be going on for the rest of my life,” Clegg tells me. “My primary work is with other alcoholics and addicts. It’s through that work I stay sober and rebuild my relationships.”

Bruni says the heavy lifting is in “constantly reminding yourself where you’ve been, where you don’t want to go, and how you got to those places that make you unhappy.” His temptations to binge remain at large. “Just last night after … a really good meal in a restaurant,” he explains, “I came close to buying a pint of ice cream. I took a deep breath and said, okay, are you really hungry? Are you thinking about the potential subtle difference you’ll feel in your pants tomorrow if you eat this?” Bruni’s a funny guy, and I want to laugh, but I don’t. “It’s … an ongoing struggle that I don’t think will ever end.”

Though there’s no end in sight for Clegg and Bruni, at least they’re not tacking on a happy ending and pulling any punches, because, ultimately, that would be relapsing.


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