22 October 2009

Review: David Carr's The Night of the Gun

Despite what my blog might have you believe and as much as I love making food for my family, I am more interested these days in memoir, in questioning my past and some of the assumptions I have lived with for many years. So it was with interest that I picked up a memoir that at first glance looked like it could have been written by my father and began to read.

Within a couple of days I had finished reading David Carr's memoir The Night of the Gun. I found it interesting because he was so messed up -- for a guy born with only one kidney, he played fast and loose with his mental and physical health, hoovering up enough drugs (I'd guess) to get an inner-city high school high on crack for days. Yet he was determined as hell to make something of his time every minute he was lucid enough to do something about his work. I found Carr's determination inspiring and fascinating (and so did he, examining it like it had just crept in from outdoors and draped itself over his neck [quotes mine, not Carr's]: "Say, what's this? How does it work? Can I use it for my own advantage? Yes!" I found Carr's backslides at least as interesting as his original transgressions against nature. Then he turns around and like Clark Kent emerging from the phonebooth, instantaneously swinging a great red cape, almost always gets treated as a veritable god in his work life, barely capable of doing any wrong. He gets the stories, interviewing people his peers believe can't be had, and he gets the stories right (almost always). But he eventually succumbs to the conceit that he can just slip under the radar as a garden-variety "suburban drunk," buzzing home on the train after work. Naturally, Carr gets out of control in a hurry once he follows that logical vapor trail. Perhaps this book is best read as Carr's love letter to his frontal lobe, which eventually gains the capacity to last inform his decisionmaking processes in an age- and responsibility-appropriate fashion over time. Time will tell if the reversal is permanent or if the old patterns are too ingrained, the old triggers too easy to trip.

Carr questions his thoroughly researched memoir enterprise all along and he is right to do so. That is an enterprise that can quickly get narcissistic. In fact here, he forces himself to be narcissistic. He says, I never excavated this belly button, and here is every shred of lint and many interviews to establish which piece of lint arrived when. But he is one of the lucky ones for whom his children did give him meaning and inspire him to change his entire way of life. Not too long after I tired of descriptions of the vortex of badness into which his life had devolved, I came to admire his dedication on behalf of his kids, his resoluteness to do right in their presences. Incredibly, according to his painstakingly researched and documented personal history, Carr successfully forswore crack around his "babies" but only backslid on this commitment when he was abusing alcohol (but surprisingly not cocaine or methamphetamines).

Reading his story, I even let myself wallow in a little jealousy of his twin girls, who had each other through it all and who as a result had no idea what their father had a checkered past until he told them about his bad self. I wonder if that came as a bigger shock to them than he expected. But he'd prepared them for it -- they'd hung out with ex-drunks and trying-to-recover junkies throughout their childhoods, as well as a cast of truly supporting characters who helped them get through many a tight spot.

Whatever talent he had, competition and winning was a prime motivator. Hardly a month out of rehab, Carr was already refining his story about having picked himself up and dusted himself off after getting dragged down by "the Life." He was already angling for a Best Comeback award. When a friend said he was applying for a job Carr wanted, back in the days when he was still using drugs, Carr held silent. Everyone later said he should have told his friend he'd been gunning for the same position. But no, he said nothing, and guess who got the job: David Carr did. By the accounts of the people he interviews in his memoir, as an editor he did well; some of the folks who worked with him disagree about how much good he did. But his gift for coming out on top in a competition has clearly served him well: he worked his way up to reporter for the New York Times.

I'm impressed someone that screwed up can truly have that much good in him. He says he always thought of himself as a good man with a bad habit. He gives credit to AA for placing his addiction and the rest of the physical and spiritual world in their proper perspectives in his life. I also noted that Carr returned to his Catholic roots. Catholics always seemed to have the most straightforward program for atoning for sins of anyone ("Take two Hail Marys and you're good to go"). There's a religion that doesn't drag you through the muck but lets you get on with your life, and this guy had some lost time to make up, so that served him well, too.

But Carr doesn't take any of the easy ways out, but rather takes a fearless moral inventory of himself. I think I would have regarded this as just another narcissistic James Frey-type junkie odyssey but for the part when his daughters are about four and he tries to get close to some women, but the women he's choosing are not what he wants for himself or his girls and he does something because he knows something's wrong but can't quite identify what it is. He talks to someone who helps him understand what he wants for himself and his daughters and what he has to change to make that happen. Then he up and changes. It's impressive.

Perhaps Carr is an unusually determined and competitive recovering junkie and drunk. I appreciate the object lesson he offers in his memoir. If someone like that can make that much of himself, and singlehandedly raise twin daughters, what the heck do I have to whine about?


Misty Mays said...

The night of the gun is a great novel hope you had fun reading it. Its one of my favs.

vanillagrrl said...

I liked how it read like a novel but was as true as he could possibly make it. That made it even more interesting to me.