The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of his Life—His Own
By David Carr
Simon and Schuster, 400 pages, $26
For most of us, David Carr is the goofy-looking Midwesterner most often seen unrolling a red carpet with his foot on NYTimes.com during Oscar season. He calls himself the Carpet Bagger. He has a blog and a column, too. In his gravelly twang he explains the ins and outs of Hollywood like some sort of benevolent avuncular muppety Richard Attenborough. With his slightly lost-looking pale blue eyes, his open vowels and his dorkiness, David Carr—like David Pogue, the Times technology writer fond of starring in his own iPhone musicals—brought hope to us slightly off writers. If they let people like him write for The Times (and even appear in videos), well, then, we have a shot, too. But the underlying assumption—that people like him are people like us—turns out to be wildly untrue. Or at least I hope so.
Mr. Carr’s past, as chronicled in his memoir The Night of the Gun, is less shady than completely blackout blindfold evil darkness. On March 18, 1987, the eponymous night, for instance, Mr. Carr had just been fired from his job as a reporter in Minneapolis: He scarfed a handful of pills, snorted a Kilimanjaro of coke, threw his best friend Donald over the hood of a car and, later, pulled a gun on him, too. Though Mr. Carr writes that the day was one of the worst in the “pantheon of ‘the worst days of my life,’” the other ones don’t seem so hot, either.
For most of his life, David Carr was an addict. As he writes, at age 31, he “had made a seemingly organic journey from pothead to party boy, from knockaround guy to friendless thug.”
The Night of the Gun is Mr. Carr’s Remembrance of Things Past, a meticulous catalog not only of sensations and memories, but all the nights he misremembered or doesn’t remember at all, the girlfriends he beat up, the jobs he lost, the people he endangered, the crystals, rocks, powders, pills and liquids he shot, snorted and swallowed. There’s a lot of bodies in this work, a lot of lives wasted, some celebrities and even Jayson Blair. But Mr. Carr’s confessions lack scandal in the same way a completely nude body lacks sensuality. They’re too exposed, leaving nothing to imagination. They’re not salacious; they’re just harrowing.
This memoir is courageous, well written and enlightening—but the journey to the end of The Night of the Gun is not fun. It’s procedural and formulaic and moving like a Hail Mary prayer—but it’s not a fun summer read by a long stretch. Arianna Huffington recently called it “ultimately uplifting.” She’s wrong.
Mr. Carr’s obsession—completely justifiable in this age of made-up memoir—is with verified accuracy. He goes on a three-year fact-checking mission into his past. Each episode follows a tripartite formula: Relentlessly and repetitively, he describes how he remembers a certain sordid episode—say the time he left his twin infants in a car in the middle of winter to score crack, or when fellow addict Tom Arnold nearly poked his eye out at a house party in Minneapolis, or when his friend Douglas pulled a gun on him—through the haze of whatever drug he was on. Then he mentions the fallibility of memory—say, how though the night of the gun was bad, at least it wasn’t he who was madly waving a gun around—and cites everybody from William James and Dostoyevsky to (predictably) Hunter S. Thompson. Finally he traipses back to those he wronged, as a sober reporter now, trying to cop a story, rather than as an addict trying to score. Mr. Carr asks not for forgiveness, the time for which has long since passed, but for help in reconstructing what happened. (It was him with the gun, all involved confirm, a .38 special; he tucked it into his pants.)
It sucks to read this journey. Not because it’s repetitive—it is, in a good, hypnotic way—but because the reader can’t help concluding that the affable David Carr was a crummy person.
IT TAKES GUTS—especially when you’ve got a plum Times gig to lose—to really come clean. Especially in the way Mr. Carr does, which is by simultaneously deflating the myths he tells about himself and whatever image of him as a good guy the reader may have started with. By page 95, when Mr. Carr is rehashing the abuse he meted out to an ex-girlfriend named Doolie, David Carr the goofy avuncular Carpetbagger has all but disappeared—and with him, our sympathy.
Bad things happen to him, but he brings most of them upon himself. After the Doolie episode, there’s 290 pages still to go. Mr. Carr cleans up, marries, relapses, cleans up, marries, relapses, cares for his kids, marries, gets some good jobs, relapses—this time reprising his role with alcohol instead of crack—and, finally, recovers. For now.
By the time we’ve reached the present, Mr. Carr has done such a thorough and honest job of describing his backsliding ways (step 4 of the 12-step recovery program he intermittently completes is “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”) that it’s difficult if not impossible and perhaps not even worthwhile to try to separate David Carr, the respectable memoirist and father of twins who lives with his family in Montclair, N.J.; from David Carr, the lying abusive sociopathic drug addict who’s repented and relapsed and repeated the pattern ad nauseam.
Sure, he was high, but whether intoxicated by ideology or crack cocaine, one is still responsible for one’s actions. (Principle IV of the Nuremberg Principles.) It’s still the same Mr. Carr, after all.
It’s to his credit, as a person and as an author, that he makes no attempt to turn The Night of the Gun into a tidy tale of redemption. He’s hustled enough in the past and isn’t trying anything like that now. He’s smart and a good writer and clearly feels bad about what he did, so deeply bad that he’s not deluding himself with the thought that he can ever make it right. The most he can do is acknowledge the wrong, make a searching and fearless moral inventory of himself, and hope for mercy from the reader.
That is, he puts the gun back in our hand.
Joshua David Stein is a regular contributor to Page Six Magazine and The Guardian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.