Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat, because some of you won’t make it to the end of this piece. David Carr’s memoir The Night of the Gun is really good. It’s dramatic, spell-binding, engaging, encouraging, and all sorts of good stuff you look for in a book. In fact the memoir is so good I often forgot it was non-fiction and had to remind myself that David Carr was a real man in the world and not some repugnant creature from a writer’s imagination.
It was tough, as a reader, to reconcile the man writing the book I was reading and enjoying with the creep who was addicted to crack, beat women, and left his infant twin daughters in a car on a cold Minnesota night so he could get high. It’s some pretty gruesome stuff and the book was shoved aside more than once because I just couldn’t take it.
For those who don’t know, Carr is a reporter for the NY Times who spent many, many years as a crackhead here on the streets of Minnesota. Months after his girlfriend (who was getting high when her water broke) gave birth to his twin daughters (two months premature) Carr decided he should probably become a responsible human, get straight, and raise his kids. The book chronicles in exacting detail the depths of his addiction, the difficulty of recovery, fighting cancer as a single-dad of twins who has recently given up crack, and well, his career as a newspaperman (from freelancer for the Family Times to reporter for the NY Times).
Quite a life. Carr approaches his story (“the darkest story of his life. his own”) as a reporter, going back to interview the people he ran with as a sort of way to fact-check his own drug-scarred, faulty memory. He even hires another reporter (DonJack who he tells us he hired about six times too many, because I got it the first time) to fact-check the fact-checking. It’s a pretty genius approach when you write a memoir in a post-James Frey world (especially when you consider that Carr was a colleague of notorious NY Times plagiarist Jayson Blair).
Carr’s writing is so disarming and his story feels so honest I often forgot I was reading the tale of a man who did horrible, horrible things in the name of getting high. I was so charmed, I let my guard down and swallowed the story whole that was until page 351.
Writers make choices, so do readers
There are some spoilers below. I don’t think knowing this information will effect your enjoyment of the book, but it might. You’ve been warned.
Carr tells his story pretty chronologically. Occasionally flashing forward to tell us that things turned out okay. He’s going at a great clip, blah, blah working for the Times, horror of September 11th , Jayson Blair fiasco which he handles in an oddly touching way , and tragic, sudden death in the family . The piece he writes about his family-member’s death is beautiful and heart-wrenching. It’s so infuse with fear and sadness that you just want to hug Carr. Then,
We’re back in 2002 and he’s telling us how on November 23rd he tossed away fourteen years of sobriety and took a drink. Then he took many, many, many more drinks, spending much of the next three years in various stages of alcohol dependency. Wha?
I was stunned. When I read that, I had to flip back a few chapters to make sure I hadn’t missed something. I don’t think I did.
I was pissed. It felt like a breech of trust. Here he had spent the entire book pouring out his awful story and then I get to page 351 and find out that the last two or three chapters I just read may or may not have happened while he was shit-faced drunk. Hrmph! But as Carr points out in the book (in a section I cannot find and do not have the patience to continue looking for) “Everybody did the best they could.” Of this, I am 100% convinced. I think Carr did the best he could, but I still question some of it.
Writers make choices. It’s a mantra beat into my head by my writing teachers. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why Carr made the choice to tell his story that way. I can’t figure it out. It’s puzzling. It seems shady.
But I still really enjoyed the book. I can’t say I loved it, because it’s a tough read. It infected my life. At night I’d have bizarre dreams featuring local journalists I’ve never met (Brian Lambert, David Brauer, Jim Walsh [who I did meet once]) having a Christmas party at my house with the editors of my college newspaper. I’d dream about passing judgment on Carr and telling him he was a bad, bad man. Only to wake up feeling guilty and lecturing myself about passing judgment.
This is what I like most about the book. It makes me think. Not just think in a passing way, but really, really think about all kinds of things from honesty to forgiveness to feminism (there’s a weird conversation in the book between Carr and musician Ike Reilly about “being a man” [barf] which from what I can tell means taking care of your responsibilities [so fucking manly, right?]).
It sounds so smarmy and bullshit, but The Night of the Gun is one of those books that once you read it, it changes you. You won’t look at things quite the same after it. And that is worth the price of the book alone.