The Night of the Gun by David Carr is the latest addition to an increasingly saturated addiction-memoir genre. In his book, Carr, a New York Times columnist, recounts his years of abusing alcohol and cocaine and eventually rebuilding his life. Nothing is inherently unique about such a story. Unless you’ve been holed up on a neo-Luddite compound, you likely know the drill. The twist: Carr doesn’t rely solely on his own memories to reconstruct his life story.
“There is a way, not to truth, but fewer lies,” Carr writes. “When I set out to write a memoir, I decided to fact-check my life, using the prosaic tools of journalism.”
And so for nearly every episode he recounts, Carr then “fact-checks” the events in videotaped interviews with the other parties involved. The goal is not just the telling of his story but an examination of the subjective nature of memory.
It’s an intriguing device that works with only mixed results. Toward the beginning, Carr relates the incident that inspired the book’s title. In his version, he goes to a friend’s house on a bender and is so out of his mind that the otherwise passive friend pulls a gun for protection. When he eventually discusses the matter with the friend, it turns out that Carr was actually the one brandishing the gun. It’s one of the larger revelations in the book, yet it doesn’t really amount to all that much. The only other notable discovery involves the author’s leaving his infant daughters in the car during winter so he could score some cocaine. It is the moment, he says, that motivated him to go into rehab; he long believed that he’d entered treatment just afterward. With a little research, he finds out it was actually seven months later that he went in. Neither of these discoveries — both recently published in the widely read Night of the Gun excerpt in The New York Times Magazine — nor any of the other revelations in the book uncovered by Carr’s method, affect the nature of the overall story.
In fact, the whole journalistic search for the truth feels more like an afterthought. Carr seems far more interested in just telling his story. At one point, he writes, “What is the value in one more addiction memoir to me or anyone else?” It’s a valid point. But much like the “people who can go on Oprah and stand like barkers in front of abasement,” as he writes, referring no doubt to the writer James Frey and his ilk, Carr appears to have been itching to make his drug story public. He first wrote about it in 1989 for the St. Paul Pioneer Press while still in rehab, and though, he claims, “I don’t like talking to strangers about the intimate aspects of my life,” just a year later he reveals that he was pitching the story again to national magazines. Carr even received something called the National Victory Award at the White House from former first lady Barbara Bush because, as he writes, “I used to stick things up my nose and now I don’t.”
I’m not sure how public one must be with their past drug use to get that sort of accolade, but I can’t imagine Barbara arbitrarily jabbed her sausagelike finger at a random list of recovering crackheads.
So with all this desire, it must have seemed a cruel twist of fate when Frey’s best-selling memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was publicly debunked by Oprah and her disciples, a spectacle that no doubt threatened to put the kibosh on the whole ex-junkie bean-spilling business. But then Carr seems to have devised a way to assuage the literary world’s jitters.
“At the same time one of the most successful hood ornaments of the genre — Frey’s A Million Little Pieces — was coming apart in plain view, a story I covered. I began to think there might be room for another memoir from a lost and found soul, a work of recollection that was based on reporting and fact-finding.”
In the end, we are simply left with Carr’s story. The best drug and alcohol memoirs, debunked, semifictitious or not, take the predictable and elevate it into something profound. One could say the works of Edward Bunker (Animal Factory, No Beast So Fierce) merely document his life in the criminal justice system yet, in the end, they become poetic commentaries on the nature of human existence. The same can be said about Frederick Exley’s book, A Fan’s Notes, which documents an alcoholic’s desperate obsession with the New York Giants and is a beautiful tale of regret and failure amidst ’50s America. Unfortunately, Carr’s book doesn’t have such lofty aspirations.
I think with Frey, it was the tone of smug superiority that turned people off as much as his obvious dishonesty. Carr’s book has plenty of Frey in this regard. He constantly invokes the tough-guy-by-proximity equation, enhancing his own rep by describing those around him as serious (albeit mainly white and middle class) badasses. When talking about his pal Tom Arnold (yes, that one), he describes the actor as “the most outlandish, off-the-hook version of a drunk and addict I had ever seen.” And in the following passage, he comes off at best as condescending and at worst a tad racist: “On the face of it, I am no more qualified to take my own historical inventory than the addict with the fetid dreads who spare-changes people on the subway while singing ‘Stand by Me.’ Ask him how he ended up sweating people for quarters with off-key singing, and he may have an answer, but it won’t be the whole story. He doesn’t know it and probably couldn’t bare it if he did.”
The saving grace for so many addicts, whether of the successful writers or the “fetid dread” variety, is a type of humanizing gallows humor. Amid all the ugliness and despair, there is still room for laughter. Consider Jerry Stahl’s memoir, Permanent Midnight, which interweaves a story of destructive heroin addiction with self-depreciating Borscht Belt–style humor. (Full disclosure: Stahl is a friend of mine.) Carr’s memoir has no such humor. In fact, I couldn’t find a single funny moment. On the contrary, he seems to view both himself and his book with an unflinching seriousness.
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Night of the Gun really only comes alive when Carr writes about his twin daughters. In these stretches, he finally allows the reader inside, and it can be quite moving. It’s too bad he keeps us at a distance for the majority of the book.
This aloofness is never as glaring as when he writes of his relationship with Anna, the mother of his twin daughters. Carr offers plenty of description as to what happened but little as to the why. Anna is conveniently allowed to sing his praises: “You’re funny, you’re gregarious, you can be an extremely charming guy.” But Carr offers no insight into his own motives for being with her other than to say they were “mercenary.” But if the relationship was entirely about her drugs for him, why then, in a fit of sexual jealousy, did he break her ribs, blacken her eye and throw her off a deck? Most addicts never resort to domestic violence, so an explanation would have been appreciated.
If one is seeking a straight-ahead, only-the-facts document of addiction, I suppose this works just fine, though you might be better off watching a few episodes of Intervention and calling it a night. But if you are looking for an entertaining, evocative memoir that transcends its subject matter, look elsewhere.
The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life — His Own | By DAVID CARR | Simon & Schuster | 400 pages |$26 hardcover