Review: Columnist David Carr investigates dark story of his own life in 'Night of the Gun'

Generally, there's nothing more boring than stories about addicts.

Whether they're cast as novels or memoirs, the stories tend to be the same: self-involved, self-deluding, disjointed and more about the addict's relationship to drugs or drink or whatever than relationships with people.

In his new memoir The Night of the Gun, David Carr finds a way to go beyond the usual half-cringing, half-boastful (and half-addled) addict autobiography: He reports his own life.

It's quite a tale, as Carr ranges from promising young journalist to abusive crackhead to sober single dad to high-profile New York Times columnist.

Carr was no dabbler in drugs and drink, no occasional party pot smoker. For about a decade, he drank, smoked and snorted just about anything he could get his hands on — "a real garbage head" — got arrested more times than he can remember, did multiple stints in rehab, lost jobs and a wife, wrecked relationships and cars. Frankly, it's amazing he lived.

He's amazed, too, especially when he bores down into his own life using the techniques that he has honed in his career as a journalist.

Carr writes a great deal in this book about memory and its flaws — not just addicts' memories but everyone's. "Memories may be based on what happened to begin with, but they are reconstituted each time they are recalled — with the most-remembered events frequently the least accurate. What one is remembering is the memory, not the event."

Because he didn't trust his memories, Carr conducted 60 interviews over several years with people he knew in his wild days. He combed arrest and medical records. He accumulated 19.3 gigabytes of data — audio and video recordings, documents, photos — about his life.

He found, over and over, that his memories did not jibe with other people's. The book's title comes from one particularly chilling episode, when Carr and his friend Donald went on an alcohol- and cocaine-fueled tear. Carr follows Donald home after an argument, and he clearly remembers Donald coming to the door with a handgun.

Carr interviews Donald. He interviews another friend. He looks up the police report. Turns out it wasn't Donald who had the gun.

It was Carr.

He has no memory of even owning a gun. "But if I was wrong about the gun," he writes, "what else was I wrong about?"

Lots, as he finds out. But The Night of the Gun isn't just a collection of recovered memories of very bad behavior. It is also — and more interestingly — the story of Carr's long, hard, still-fragile journey to sobriety.

There is no simple-minded, I-saw-the-light moment that changes everything for him. Many things combine to drag him back to life: the support of his large, loving family (even though many of them have their own substance problems); the good fortune to have crashed and burned in a state (Minnesota) enlightened enough to put addicts in rehab and keep them there long enough to do some good; the time-honored methods of Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs; a second wife smart and strong enough to push back; an abiding passion for the work of journalism that gives his life structure at the worst times.

But if any one thing saved him — or, more accurately, any two — it was his twin daughters, Erin and Meagan. (He later has a third daughter, Maddie, with his second wife.)

Born in the deepest trough of Carr's addiction, the twins are a story of amazing survival themselves. Their mother, Anna, was Carr's drug dealer, a woman with even worse problems than his. Born 2 1/2 months prematurely at less than 3 pounds each, the twins buck the odds and grow up healthy — raised by Carr after he got sober and won sole custody.

"They were a concept when I started taking care of them, little wiggling markers of responsibility, but then they started to talk, and talk back to me."

Carr's road to recovery has bumps, notably a bout with cancer when the twins are toddlers, and a hard fall off the wagon after 14 years of sobriety. But he does more than recover his past; he learns from it.

The Night of the Gun has its flaws. Carr never really analyzes why he became an addict in the first place, and some of those bad-boy stories take on a "Dude, it was outrageous!" glow still.

Using only first names for the people he interviews, AA style, seems silly — when Carr writes about friends "Jayson" and "Seth" at the New York Times, any fool who can Google knows they're Blair and Mnookin, and his fond words about "Tom" actually run with a picture of Tom Arnold and Roseanne Barr.

But what keeps the book engaging is Carr's voice. He's a born storyteller, and — even when it sounds like the old junkie jive — he knows just when to be self-deprecating.

"Going back over my history has been like crawling over broken glass in the dark," he writes. "I hit women, scared children, assaulted strangers, and chronically lied and gamed to stay high. I read about That Guy with the same sense of disgust that almost anyone would. What. An. A--hole."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life: His Own

By David Carr

Simon & Schuster, 387 pages, $26

On the Web: www.nightofthegun.com

Review: Columnist David Carr investigates dark story of his own life in 'Night of the Gun' 08/16/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 16, 2008 4:30am]

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