It’s not immediately clear when you get to the end of NYT columnist David Carr’s new book, The Night of the Gun, whether you’ve just seen the memoir redeemed or irrevocably dismantled. A work of traditional reportage motivated by the fashionable and unnerving notion that it’s impossible to really know anything for sure, Mr. Carr’s book—which arrives in bookstores next week—turns the traditional memoir on its head, assuming as it does that its author knows nothing about his own life and must research it as though it were someone else’s. The book practically interrogates itself, questioning its own right to exist even as Mr. Carr vigilantly gathers string on the dark and druggy life he led into his 30s. Are any of the glitchy, fractured memories he has from those days true? Are his sources—the dealers who sold him his cocaine, the friends who watched with horror as he injected it into his veins, the fellow junkies who stood over stoves with him while he cooked it into crack—any more reliable?
Mr. Carr thinks they are, but only when their recollections are considered in relation to each other’s. “You can’t know the whole truth,” as he puts it, “but if there is one it lies in the space between people.”
The truth is out there, in other words, but it’s in pieces. And if we want to understand ourselves, our world, what happened, and what might, every effort must be taken to reconstruct it. This is the guiding principle of Mr. Carr’s book, and at a time when the idea that facts actually matter seems to have disappeared into the vortex of the Bush Administration, James Frey and Margaret Jones, it is, unmistakably, a rallying cry.
To quote a recent Pub Crawl interview with the documentarian Errol Morris, whose life’s work reflects a sustained preoccupation with problems of fiction and reality, “Saying the truth is subjective and unknowable—that everyone sees the world in a different way and hence there is no world—is radically different from saying there are endless impediments and obstacles to uncovering what the world is really like and what really happened.
“There are facts of the matter,” Mr. Morris says, “and one needs to actually pursue them.”
This is what makes The Night of the Gun so important. After years of abuse, the memoir has found its white knight, galloping in to show how a personal story can be engrossing, shocking and true. Mr. Carr’s book—which has been the talk of the publishing world since its release date was bumped from September to August and a gripping excerpt was printed in The New York Times Magazine two weekends ago—practically issues a challenge to those current reigning kings—David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, Ishmael Beah—of the memoir genre: You get a video camera and tape recorder, and retrace the steps of your life. Will your story sound the same?
Simon & Schuster was so skittish about publishing The Night of the Gun and demanded so much documentation from Mr. Carr that he hired a stringer, a reporter from Minneapolis named Don Jacobson, to help him gather materials and track down people who had eluded him.
“Carr didn’t tell me this in so many words,” Mr. Jacobson said in an interview, “but it’s my feeling that he does want to try to bring the genre back from being out in the wilderness, and reestablish it as a real and valuable genre. If you can believe memoirs, they’re very valuable.”