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Culture & Religion

Bill Clegg’s Beautiful Mind: A Literary Crack Memoir

New York’s excerpt of literary agent Bill Clegg’s memoir has the rush and pull of Jay McInernery’s Bright Lights, Big City. McInerney was celebrated for placing his action in the second person; Clegg will be remembered for how he uses the first. It is disconcerting, and seductive. Whether one has any interest in literary agents or drug addiction (the latter not new to the memoir genre; the former one channel through which memoirs find us, and Oprah), this is a story with broader appeal. Like Bright Lights, it’s a portrait of a city, and of a self-conscious intellectual’s self-invention. It’s a sublime new cover of a very old song; the Velvet Underground called it by name: Heroin.

McInerney’s short story, “It’s Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are?” became the novel Bright Lights, Big City. In an early paragraph the narrator wonders:

How did you get here? It was your friend Tad Allagash who powered you in here, and now he has disappeared. Tad is the kind of guy who certainly would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. He is either your best self or your worst self, you’re not sure which. Earlier in the evening it seemed clear that he was your best self. You started on the Upper East Side with Champagne and unlimited prospects, strictly observing the Allagash rule of perpetual motion: one drink per stop. Tad’s mission in life is to have more fun than anyone else in New York City, and this involves a lot of moving around, since there is always the likelihood that you are missing something, that where you aren’t is more fun than where you are. You are awed by this strict refusal to acknowledge any goal higher than the pursuit of pleasure. You want to be like that. You also think he is shallow and dangerous.

Allagash is a cool foil, an always-failing-upwards-awkwardly Gatsby to the narrator’s straighter and vastly less sexy Nick. Clegg has no foil, and he does not cloak his story in nightclubs and nicknames, like Bolivian Marching Powder. Because McInernery was engaging in art, after all, whereas Clegg—while artful—is engaged in redemption. Or, warning. He shares so devastating we will want to enlist him to protect us. We want to know how this happened so we may prevent it in our own lives and the lives of all those we know. McInernery mapped the unique New York addiction to pleasure. But crack is vastly less glamorous than pleasure. Glass pipes and failed passes in a Jersey parking lot are not envied inside the Boom Boom Room.

Post-binge, post-paranoia, in a coffee shop downtown the morning after, Clegg writes of the city around him:

This is a shiny world, I think . . . for people whose lives I can only see as unblemished and lucky. A place where I’ve been allowed a visit but cannot stay. A place I’ve already left.

This book arrives in the same cultural season as the Stones re-issued, re-iterated Exile on Main Street. While both involve drugs, sex, and brilliance, there is a more compelling connection between one man’s struggle and a weekend spent drinking (and making music) in the South of France: fear. This is what gives Clegg’s book its magic. This is what force the Stones to flee South. For Clegg, fear can be described by a mind that knows its grips and is also well versed in the literary history of its description. He must know that the best memoirs give a little bit There But For the Grace of God and a little bit Redemption is My Right. He must know that the reader can feel that inimitable, visceral response: you cannot make this shit up.


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