Before his untimely death in 2015, David Carr was an acclaimed journalist, editor and culture correspondent for the New York Times. Ta-Nehisi Coates claimed that he owed his writing career to Carr’s support and Carr is often credited as the man who launched Lena Dunham thanks to his championing of the original script of Girls.
Circle back to the 1980s when Carr was a reporter for a newspaper in Minneapolis and life was a little less successful. He had a drink and cocaine problem which swiftly spiralled downwards to low-level dealing, heroin and regular arrests. Life became that of the full-blown addict and he hit proverbial rock bottom when he fathered twin girls with his girlfriend who was also an addict and the children were taken into foster care. He eventually managed to turn things around, and following several stints in rehab, he gained custody of his children again, married a good woman, got back into regular work and wrote this memoir.
Carr’s story is not a new one – nor is it unique – and at the beginning of The Night of the Gun he himself asks ‘what is the value in one more addiction memoir to me or anyone else?’ What sets this memoir apart is that Carr has taken the bones of his own story and approached it as a journalist would, interviewing sources, interrogating source material and basically corroborating his own memory of events with the facts and opinions of the people who were affected by his behaviour at that time.
The book gets its title from a memory that Carr had of an evening when he behaved so badly that his friend pulled a gun on him. After chatting to said friend, Carr was mortified to be told that it was in fact he who had pulled the gun on his friend, a gun he never even remembered owning. This complete up-ending of one of his worst memories made Carr realise that he had created for himself a typical arc of addiction and redemption that bore little resemblance to the truth of his life.
Recollection 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. Personal narrative is not simply opening up a vein and letting the blood flow toward anyone willing to stare. The historical self is created to keep dissonance at bay and render the subject palatable in the present.
So, he approaches his own story as if he were reporting someone else’s, reconstructing events with the aid of police reports, magazine rejection letters, and more than sixty interviews with friends, former dealers, and fellow-addicts. in an attempt to present a more honest version of his life-story and face up to some of the uglier aspects of his addiction. As such, The Night of the Gun becomes as much a memoir as a meditation on the inherent unreliability of memory and an exploration of the often unconsciously deliberate ways that we reconfigure the mess of our lives into more palatable histories.
Carr’s approach is unorthodox and yields some interesting and painful results. He is happy to learn from co-workers and editors that he managed to continue to write and turn in strong work, even at the height of his addiction. Less pleasant are the recollections of the couple who fostered his twin daughters or the recriminations from the mother of his children, who has never forgiven him for gaining full custody of the girls.
While this journalistic interrogation promises to pull back the curtain on the life of an addict, Carr still does gloss over some of the more unpleasant sides of his personality. He is arrested several times for battering his girlfriends and puts this down to his drug-fuelled mania, but doesn’t explore that anger any further. He also mentions that his father and some of his siblings had problems with alcohol but doesn’t explore in any depth what that family legacy could have meant for his own addiction.
The journalistic approach can also leave the reader at somewhat of a distance and while this way of chronicling the past leads to clarity for Carr, it can lack the emotional depth that many memoirs attain through a certain degree of fictionalisation.
Having said that, The Night of the Gun is a heartfelt and often emotional read, particularly as Carr charts his relationship with his twin daughters and his journey from addiction to redemption might not be unique, but it is uniquely told and it is hard not to feel empathy for a man who can look at the mistakes he has made with such a critical, clear eye.
I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.
Unfortunately for Carr, he died at the age of just 58, collapsing on the floor of the news room of his beloved New York Times. On the strength of this memoir, he had so much still to give, but his gratitude for what he had and what he overcame, shines through.
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