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.”
In The Night of the Gun, facts arrive unembellished from the mouths of ex-dealers and ex-lovers, from bosses and employees, from acquaintances who have nothing to gain or lose by telling Mr. Carr what they know. It adds up to a riveting, improbable story. More important, Mr. Carr has produced a work that stands to revive the excitement and thrill of reading about reporting. It’s All the President’s Men, but about a dude from Minnesota with a drug habit.
MR. CARR’S IS the patchy, jagged story of a tireless party animal—“a dynamo of hilarity,” in his words—beyond anyone’s control, who was tolerated and cared for most of his life by the people around him because of his irrepressible charisma and talent as a journalist. This isn’t a self-created myth, but the truth that emerges from the shared experiences of dozens of others. To them, Mr. Carr was Tom Sawyer with an eight ball in his back pocket instead of a slingshot—the archetype of the mischievous, invincible genius, born cool and fearless and unfazed by the prospect of flushing all his gifts down the toilet. Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty from On the Road, was one of these, too; so was Hunter S. Thompson; and the singer from the Happy Mondays as portrayed in 24 Hour Party People.
It’s easy to see why James Frey was so eager to convince everyone he was a member of that species. Surely it was the desire to be as intriguing as them, as irresistible, that motivated him, not whatever book-deal money that supposedly tempted him to submit A Million Little Pieces to publishers as the story of his life rather than the fictional work that it was.
The direct comparison is impossible not to make—Mr. Carr actually writes at one point that the Frey scandal helped him realize that reporting an autobiography was an interesting idea—but at its heart The Night of the Gun is not a mere “answer” to Pieces or a reprimand of the publishing industry, but a hopeful project meant to affirm the power of facts over myth and uncertainty. Because Mr. Frey’s worst crime was not exaggerating his status as a badass—let him exaggerate, after all, if it means so much to him—but the dreamy notion that has taken hold since his exposure that the boundary between truth and fiction is not so material as some make it out to be.
Nan Talese, who published A Million Little Pieces and has remained a dedicated supporter of its author, believes that difference is fluid when it comes to questions of memory and memoir.
“Memoir isn’t like a Congressional report,” she said yesterday. “The whole use of the word ‘memoir’ instead of ‘nonfiction story’ indicates that what is written is the author’s memory. It would be sort of silly to say at the beginning, ‘This is what I remember, but I don’t know if it’s actually true.’”
Mr. Carr is fascinated by that “but.” For him, distinguishing truth from fiction is basically the whole point of existing in the world, even though it’s an uphill battle.
As he puts it early in the book, “Memory is an expression of hindsight as much as recollection. … To be fully cognizant of the wreckage of one’s past can be paralyzing, so we, or at least I, minimize as we go.” Recollection, he writes, “is often just self-fashioning. Some of it is reflexive, designed to bury truths that cannot be swallowed, but other ‘memories’ are just redemption myths writ small.”
We are incapable, in other words, of telling our stories truthfully because we don’t really know them—that we are powerless against our natural inclination to ignore and forget inconvenient facts so as to more fluently impose on our lives the generic, familiar narratives from which it is easiest to extract meaning. “If memory is fungible,” Mr. Carr writes, “then time is its wingman, stretching and compressing to conjure a coherent story.”
Mr. Carr has done his best to protect his life story from the clichés that had eclipsed its true course in his memory. And while, in spite of his rigor, some uncertainty inevitably remains, getting the facts went a long way. Gather enough of them, and you’re closer to the truth than you were, is the point. Mr. Carr’s book affirms, not a moment too soon, that this is worth something.