The Joyous Peculiarity of David Carr

Corby Kummer—David Carr's editor at The Atlantic—takes stock of Carr's gritty new memoir, The Night of the Gun.

Macho and swashbuckling journalists—and, despite the pantywaist Ivy Leaguers that old-timers bemoan, there are still plenty of them, including women, in journalism’s ever-dwindling ranks—will have to rethink their plans for a memoir now that David Carr has written The Night of the Gun. Carr, the media columnist for the New York Times, recounts his past as a womanizing, emotionally and physically abusive crack addict and dealer in and out of jail, and he introduces us to his fellow addicts and carousers and to the women he both hits on and hits. It is women who care for and rescue him, particularly his twin daughters, whose custody he wins when their addicted mother is unable to care for them.

In the midst of domestic and legal chaos of the most sordid and disabling kinds, Carr manages to keep working: drunk and high or sober, he's a reporting and writing machine, as shown by his Times gigs as columnist, entertainment and pop-culture writer, Oscar-season blogger, and occasional rock-weekend reveler. Carr never reported from a war zone, but he manages to make the bars he lives in and the flophouse apartments he crashes in—the bottom he knows "every inch of"—seem like one. Other reporters, however hard-charging, will find it hard to top these frequently rollicking tales of actual criminal behavior.

david carr

March, 1987, arrests. (From David Carr's web site)

The reviews of the book, which was officially published last Tuesday, have focused on the lurid details of the story and on Carr's premise—gimmick, as he admits—of being the anti-James Frey, reporting and exhaustively fact-checking his own past so as to make it Oprah-proof.

But however dramatic and heartwarming—while Carr is trying to raise his daughters as a hardworking, sober single parent he fights cancer, yet—his story fits into a longstanding rehab genre, disturbing last-minute relapse and all. (In the middle of living happily ever after Carr becomes a drunk, reveals to his three children the irresponsible father they never saw, hits bottom again, goes into a rough-house detox center near Times Square, and recommits to sobriety). Other addicts have described climbing out of the well one rung, one detox, one meeting at a time; the terrain is familiar, even if other writers haven't dug deep into police and medical records or shoved a video camera and microphone into the faces of as many people as they can convince to talk to them (60 for Carr). The book has received more than the usual attention for a book on recovery, less because of the tale it tells than because Carr has so many friends in the media. (I'm one of them. I edited several of Carr's articles during his brief stint at The Atlantic. Now I know why he once told me to back off when I illustrated a story I was telling with repeated index-finger jabs to his chest: it was, he recounts in an early chapter, the habit of an assembly-line boss he hated.)

What really lifts the book out of the genre and merits the unusual attention—and what, surprisingly, so many reviewers have missed—is the joyous peculiarity of Carr's writing. His ceaseless prolixity, a trait he shares with old-style newspapermen and new-style bloggers ("I have no fear of deadline writing—my first thought is often my best") means that he is sometimes sloppy, and sometimes soppy too, as in his stab at rules for recovery or his frequently reiterated claims that fatherhood saved his life. But he writes like no one else, constantly throwing in turns of phrase that stick. Much of the book is thrilling to read, especially the first half—the sudden drop down the roller coaster is inevitably more exhilarating to hear about than the low-gear ride up. Here is a sampler, on getting and staying addicted and recovering:

Getting chronically stoned, even in high school, was dumb, like driving through life with the parking brake on.
          I have since covered both politics and Hollywood, cultures where abject fealty is refined to an intricate art, but you haven't seen ass-kissing until you have seen a roomful of junkies surrounding someone who has a bagful of coke.
          The high [from smoking cocaine] would last fifteen or twenty minutes, and then the synapses would begin making a fuss—a head full of little baby birds with the beaks open and crying out for more...The narcotic was being inhaled while my soul was exhaled.
          End-stage addiction is mostly about waiting for the police, or someone, to come and bury you in your shame.
          If an addict knows in his heart he is going to use someday, why not today? But if a thin reed of hopes appears, the possibility that it will not always be thus, things change. You live another day and then get up and do it again. Hope is oxygen to someone who is suffocating on despair.
         The defining characteristic of recovery from addiction, or any other chronic health issue, is that you are fine until you are not. To the normal person, it can seem completely baffling.

And what might be my favorite passage, on living with chronic illness:

Cancer keeps its own appointment schedule. Your body belongs to you one day, and the next it becomes the host. That mystical power, its very ineffability, gives cancer traction on the soul that never goes away.

The inherent narcissism of the enterprise can get airless, despite the author’s constant apologies for it to the reader. Carr might have included fewer flattering observations from ex-lovers and colleagues, even if he doesn't hesitate to include every damning detail too. His recounting of days-long benders and betraying lovers and colleagues can veer into braggadoccio: "The best intentions frequently met their match around me"; "We were men who had ruined or nearly ruined the lives of every woman we had ever hooked up with.” He also might have included fewer extracts from his old columns, which along with police and medical reports can feel like padding, or have curbed his penchant for snappy chapter titles.

But that's carping. As Carr's disturbing relapse at the end of the book demonstrates, the most articulate confessions and advice to others don't necessarily work on oneself. He failed many early treatment programs partly by being the perfect patient, and even when sending a beautifully written anti-alcohol letter to a brother in trouble had gone back to drinking himself. This is a book that everyone who likes getting high a little too much—and everyone close to them—needs to read.