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The Night of the Gun by David Carr

I first heard of David Carr, a writer at the paper of record, this summer when he published an essay in the New York Times Magazine about his days as a cocaine junkie and his journey to redemption after his girlfriend, also a junkie, gave birth prematurely to twin girls who were soon placed in foster care while he struggled with sobriety to reclaim them. By all accounts, Carr was, during his days in "the Life", a charismatic and deeply troubled man whose journalistic talents kept him employed at various Twin Cities newspapers long after he had become unemployable. Carr has been sober now for twenty plus years, but it took five stints in treatment over the course of many coke-addled years to make that happen. His last rock bottom was the cold Minnesota night when he ran out of coke and brought his infant daughters, bundled up against the chill in snowsuits, to pick up some drugs from his dealer and left the girls in the car for hours while he got high. They lived through the night, and his brother found them a foster family through Catholic Charities while he checked himself into rehab.

There are a lot of addiction memoirs out there, including the obvious, but David Carr's is different. Carr knows that the fact that he was high for most of the experiences he is writing about makes his own version of the story suspect at best, so he took the skills he'd acquired against all odds as a successful reporter and rounded up everyone he could who remembered him from the bad old days.

Most of them agreed to speak to him, and though those conversations must have been awkward and uncomfortable and painful for everybody involved, it seems that old wounds have healed over better than expected, and most of the people Carr talks to have left the Life themselves. Ex-girlfriends are forgiving, ex-drug dealers are wry, ex-bosses are happy for his success, ex-friends are nostalgic. We should all be so lucky, and that realization should be frustrating--I will probably never do the horrible, degraded things that Carr has done, and I will probably also never be nearly as successful. He went from a drug addicted loser to a happy family man with three healthy children, a good marriage, and a job at The New York Times that, despite the way print is dying, most aspiring writers would kill for. How is that even remotely fair? It's not. But it's hard to hold it against Carr because he gets it:

Here is what I deserved: hepatitis C, federal prison time, H.I.V., a cold park bench, an early, addled death.

Here is what I got: the smart, pretty wife, the three lovely children, the job that impresses.

Here is what I remember about how That Guy became This Guy: not much. But my version of events is worth knowing, if for no other reason than I was there.

One of the things I loved about Carr's book is that he refused to pretend. He won't say he earned his good life by working to get back custody of his children and off welfare because, quite honestly, he was the sole cause of all the despair he suffered and the havoc he wreaked. Providing for the children he created and nearly destroyed was the least he could do, and he knows that better than anyone. He won't bad mouth the efficacy of the treatment that made him sober, either. "This is the point where the knowing author laughs along with his readers about his time among the aphorisms, how he was once so gullible and needy that he drank deeply of such weak and fruity Kool-Aid. That’s some other story. Slogans saved my life." He was a cliche when he was an addict and he's a cliche now, he insists. Very little about his problems or his triumphs is remarkable aside from the fact that they happened to him, and that he has the opportunity and the capability to talk about it to people who will listen.

Carr is humble out of necessity. He admits he wasn't the ideal candidate for custody, but the fact that he was clean and wanted it and the girls' mother was still a junkie and didn't seem to made him the only viable option. He doesn't give himself too much credit, either: "When a woman, any woman, has issues with substances, has kids out of wedlock and ends up struggling as a single parent, she is identified by many names: slut, loser, welfare mom, burden on society. Take those same circumstances and array them over a man, and he becomes a crown prince. See him doing that dad thing and, with a flick of the wrist, the mom thing too! Why is it that the same series of overt acts committed by a male becomes somehow ennobled?" He knows his parenting skills were learned on the job and that their family routine was sort of patchwork for a while, but he's right--it makes them adorable and "if that all sounds like some after-school special, with the fat ex-junkie dad singing to his misbegotten daughters, well, it is what it is." Sigh. It's hard out there for a lady.

Carr's memoir is heartbreaking in its own way, but I never got to a point where I thought he was exaggerating for effect or making a play for my sympathies. His most emotionally bald moments are always when he's talking about his daughters, who he claims saved him. He refers to his little family over and over again as "me and mine" and seems eternally grateful for all the unsolicited help he received while raising them. He acknowledges that things aren't perfect--his daughters have never had a very close relationship with his wife, Jill, who he married when they were six and had a third daughter with, for example--and neither is he, a fact that is obvious when, near the end of the book, he descends into a quick but deep bout of alcoholism that ended right before he began the research for the memoir.

My favorite aspect of Carr's memoir is that you always care about and like him, even when he admits to doing the most terrible things. Carr understands that, generally, the duality of "good person" or "bad person" doesn't really exist, that we're all people who make good choices or bad choices, but most often a combination of the two. Choices matter, and but progression counts far more. One good choice often leads to other good choices, and one bad choice often leads to other bad ones--or worse ones--until you find yourself a happily married father of three or a destructive junkie in the depths of despair. Carr has been both, and he sees the difference as that between life and death, but he knows the past is more indelible than anything material and it will always be a part of who he is.

If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story? What if instead I wrote that I was a recovered addict who obtained sole custody of my twin girls, got us off welfare and raised them by myself, even though I had a little touch of cancer? Now we’re talking. Both are equally true, but as a member of a self-interpreting species, one that fights to keep disharmony at a remove, I’m inclined to mention my tenderhearted attentions as a single parent before I get around to the fact that I hit their mother when we were together. We tell ourselves that we lie to protect others, but the self usually comes out looking damn good in the process.

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  1. Blogger chris | 1:09 PM |  

    I love Permanent Midnight because he's so self-loathing. And he used to write for ALF!

    Maybe I'm naive, but I still don't get the controversy behind the James Frey book. So he made crap up, big deal - this guy and Jerry Stahl probably did too. Where do you draw the line between "dramatic liberty" and "lying"?

  2. Blogger nicole | 2:08 PM |  

    I heard David Carr speak at a writing conference in MPLS last year. He was hilarious, but definitely a man's man (and his voice was painfully husky, from smoking who knows what). Which is funny now that his "beat" at The New York Times is covering the Award Season in Hollywood! He does video posts from the red carpet, too, which can be seen at The New York Times website.

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