David Carr is a skinny little guy with a flat Minnesota accent and a chronically bent head. He also is a guy with a lot of power. He is the media columnist and culture reporter for the New York Times, so when he saunters into Michael’s, the media elites’ favorite lunchtime gathering place, he is greeted with lots of waves, handshakes, and ready smiles. But there is another side to David Carr, or at least there was — a pot- and crack-smoking, whiskey-, gin-, and vodka-swilling, coke-sniffing and -injecting junkie who, when he entered detox for the fourth (or was it the fifth time?), was given a large tub of lukewarm water and Dreft detergent in which to soak his scabrous, pus-filled track marks so the staff would not have to touch him.
The Night of the Gun is his memoir, but it is unlike the more familiar junkie memoirs. Especially the ones that have been pushed up the best-seller list by Oprah, where shock at the narrator’s behavior is transformed into sympathy for his ultimate heart-warming recovery. Carr, a reader and scoffer-at of such memoirs, writes, “After reading four pages of continuous ten-year-old dialogue magically recalled by someone who was in the throes of alcohol withdrawal at the time, I wondered how he did it. No I didn’t. I knew he made it up.”
In order to tell his own story, Carr relies not on his memory but on his skill and competence as a reporter: He fact-checked his own life through 60 interviews with the dealers he worked for, the women he dated and often abused, the bosses he screwed over, and the friends with whom he drank and used. As he writes, “HERE IS WHAT I DESERVED: Hepatitis C, federal prison time, HIV, a cold park bench. An early addled death. HERE IS WHAT I GOT: A nice house, a good job, three lovely children. HERE IS WHAT I REMEMBER ABOUT HOW THAT GUY BECAME THIS GUY: Not much.”
The story of the night of the gun is a case in point. He remembers that it followed a day of drinking, line after line of coke, and getting fired from a good job yet again. He and a friend had a fight. When he went to his pal’s apartment to confront him, the friend had a gun and called the cops, and Carr high-tailed it away. The only problem: The friend remembers and another friend agrees it was Carr, not the friend, who had the gun.
Another story, and probably the most important one in the book, is about his two daughters. He had just handed their mother a crack pipe when her water broke, and shortly thereafter, on a night when he was taking care of them, he needed some coke. He drove to the drug house, left them, tiny in their snowsuits, inside the car. For how long? “Ten minutes times ten probably, if not more. Hours not minutes. I walked toward the darkened car with drugs in my pocket and a cold dread in all corners of my being. I cracked the front door . . . leaned in. I could see their breath. God had looked after the twins and by proxy me, but I realized that moment that I had made a mistake He could not easily forgive. I made a decision in that instant never to be that man again.”
And he wasn’t. Not really. But even that epiphany is not quite as he remembered it. He thought he straightened out and went into detox when the girls were just a couple of months old. Wrong. It was eight months later before he stopped.
So how did he go from That Guy to This Guy? Mainly because of the love he had for his daughters, now college-age. He managed, with the help of a shrewd lawyer, to gain sole custody of them. He also had a large, loving, Irish Catholic family; married a smart, brown-eyed blond who had worked for a Republican senator; and was both extremely ambitious and very, very smart. And, yes, you hear how smart every one of the people he interviewed always thought he was, even when he was a total cruddy mess. Carr is now an extremely smart media critic, writing a column every week. He also has an Irish boy’s almost sweet, unquestioning loyalty to the Times, and maybe not the best judgment about friends (he was a pal of Jayson Blair).
But even This Guy, he acknowledges, is “not normal.” A few years ago, even with the great job, nice house, good wife, and terrific kids he fell off the wagon and jeopardized a lot of what he had put together. It took a drunk-driving arrest, a near accident with his daughters in the car, a couple of benders, and, ultimately, lots and lots of meetings to sober him up. He now concludes, “I am a maniac who simply enjoys the fruits of acting normal.” He never asks for sympathy, but his skill and the way he has told his story deserves respect.
The Night of the Gun is an amazingly honest and fascinating memoir.
— Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.