The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 28, 2008

Book review: Memoir an unmerciful mirror

‘The Night of the Gun’

By David Carr

Although I love a good autobiography, the one genre I tend to avoid is the addiction memoir. I usually find them mawkish and somewhat lacking in truthfulness, as evidenced by the debacle with James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces.”

When I picked up “The Night of the Gun” by David Carr, it was with some trepidation. But I had heard him interviewed on National Public Radio and was intrigued by the book’s subtitle: “A reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. His own.”

His story did not disappoint. There are few books about which I say this, but I hated to put it down when sleep or work beckoned. Carr details his descent from hard-partying college student to full-blown crack addict, as well as repeated trips to rehab. Along the way, he raises twin daughters, squanders opportunities both professional and personal, battles cancer, and becomes a successful journalist.

What struck me most about “The Night of the Gun” was Carr’s lack of self-pity. He takes a microscopic, unsympathetic look at himself. He had a family that loved him, some education, a lot of talent, and a series of jobs that would have allowed him to advance far in his chosen career had he managed to stay clean.

Basically, he was a major screw-up, and it was no one’s fault but his own. As he puts it, “Truly ennobling personal narratives describe a person overcoming the bad hand that fate has dealt him, not someone like me, who takes good cards and sets them on fire.”

As expected, he admits to abusing ridiculous amounts of illegal substances, but he also doesn’t spare the reader the grittier aspects of his dark period. He confesses to dealing drugs, beating up his girlfriend, pulling a gun on a good friend, even leaving his infant daughters alone in a car on a cold Minnesota night while he went to score drugs.

The latter two incidents become central to the book. “The Night of the Gun” touches on an event that was a mystery to Carr until he started researching his hazy past. (He put his reporting skills to work, spending years interviewing people who had known him at various points in his life, and examining old medical and arrest records.)

He recollects a night when he ended up on a good friend’s doorstep, very high and very confrontational; his friend met him at the door with a gun. Or so Carr thought, until he interviewed his friend years later. He closes this first chapter with a sentence replete with meaning: “This is a story about who had the gun.”

The winter night he abandoned his daughters in a car for hours was his rock-bottom. The walk back to his car — “with drugs in my pocket and a cold dread in all corners of my being” — must have been the longest of his life. He knew they were alive only when he saw their breath.

“God had looked after the twins, and by proxy me, but I realized at that moment that I had made a mistake. He could not easily forgive. I made a decision at that instant never to be that man again.”

From that point on, his story takes a more hopeful turn, though not a completely charmed one. His daughters go into temporary foster care while he again checks in to rehab. (The passage in which he describes rehab staff disinfecting the oozing track marks in his arms left me a bit queasy.)

After completing treatment, he takes back his daughters and gradually rebuilds his life, only temporarily sidetracked by a battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He begins to eke out a living in journalism, building on his successes and repairing his tarnished image. He marries and has another child.

Yet he continues to fight his demons. It makes for painful reading when he describes how he started drinking again, nearly losing everything he had worked so hard to rebuild.

As the book closes, Carr admits that his sobriety — like any addict’s, I suppose — is not an entirely rock-solid thing: “I could be drunk tomorrow or shooting dope even as you read this but the chances of that are low as long as I make a daily decision to embrace who I really am and then be satisfied with that at the end of the day.”

In keeping with the candor that imbues “Night of the Gun,” Carr remains realistic but hopeful to the end. And despite his determination not to be heroic, there is something ennobling about that.

Lisa E. Brown is the administrative assistant at the Joplin Public Library.