The Night of the Gun

In The Night of the Gun, David Carr does for junkie memoirs what Dave Eggers did for hipster bildungsromans in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. That is, Carr’s book both takes apart the well-worn conventions of the genre and takes advantage of them. Acutely aware of the minefield of clichés awaiting the author who sets out to detail the story of his addiction and recovery, Carr approaches each narrative turn with ironic, reportorial skepticism. Yet he’s not afraid to give himself over to earnest emotion, to admit that some clichés are clichés because they’re so true.

Today, Carr is a respected media columnist for The New York Times. In the 1980s, he was a volatile addict with a string of arrests, a man who happened to be smoking crack with the pregnant mother of his twins when her water broke. On one level, The Night of the Gun is simply the story of how he got from there to here, a compelling, if familiar and salacious, tale of depravity, bottoming out, and redemption born of fatherhood.

More interesting, though, is the way that Carr turns his journalistic skills on his own memories, and discovers how distorted and often self-serving they are. That’s what makes The Night of the Gun something deeper than an investigation of one man’s past. It is, rather, about the fallibility of memory itself and about the way people construct and reconstruct their histories to jibe with their changing self-conceptions. It is a memoir about the unreliability of memoirs.

In its quest for hard truth, the book is a corrective to the recent wave of exaggerated or flat-out false hard-luck stories that have embarrassed the publishing industry, including James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, Margaret Seltzer’s Love and Consequences, and the supposedly semi-autobiographical work of J. T. LeRoy, a fictitious author and avant-garde cause célèbre created by the writer Laura Albert. But it also calls into question other famous recovery stories, those that haven’t been discredited and that may have represented an author’s genuine attempt at honestly.

“I read some classics of the genre, debunked and not,” Carr 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. It was easy and defendable, really, sublimating and eliding the past in service of a larger Emotional Truth. Truth is singular and lies are plural, but history — the facts of what happened — is both immutable and basically unknowable.”

To escape the draw of such elisions and get at his own history, Carr had to go outside his own head: he interviewed dozens of people from his past and excavated old records from his journeys through jails and rehab, comparing what he found with his own recollections. The truth often diverged significantly from his memories, and was generally uglier.

The book begins in 1987, when, after getting fired from a reporting job in Minneapolis, Carr gets drunk and coked up with his friend Donald, with whom he gets into a fight. Furious, he arrives at Donald’s sister’s house, and Donald points a gun at him to make him leave.

Except, when the author talks to Donald 19 years later, Donald tells him that he, Carr, was the one with the gun. Carr doesn’t believe him. “I am not a gun guy,” he writes. “That is bedrock?.. I’ve been on the wrong end a few times?. But walking over to my best friend’s house with a gun jammed in my pants? No chance. That did not fit my story, the one about the white boy who took a self-guided tour of some of life’s less savory hobbies before becoming an upright citizen.” But a year later, he interviews another old friend, Chris, who also remembers the author owning a gun. “It started to ring some distant, alarming bell,” Carr writes. “Oh yeah, my gun. Maybe so.” Then he adds, “But if I was wrong about the gun, what else was I wrong about?”

Quite a bit, it turns out. At every step, Carr’s story is more complicated, and many times more damning, than he recalls, and he struggles to reconcile who he was with who he is. “If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story?” he writes. “What if instead I wrote I was a recovered addict who obtained 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 to my children as a single parent before I get around to the fact that I hit their mother when we were together.”

The book never really squares his two personas. Ultimately, his rigorous honesty, his refusal to invent the past on the page, makes the old, out-of-control Carr somewhat inscrutable. The one thing reportage can’t convey is what it felt like to be that guy. How did he, a middle-class boy burning up a life crammed with potential, justify himself to himself? What was going through his head that day his twins were born? Was it the drugs alone that made him beat up women or something dark and cruel in himself that the drugs brought out? He can’t really tell us. It’s a frustrating lacuna that also reinforces the book’s point about the elusiveness of the past.

Despite his brutal candor, Carr sometimes romanticizes aspects of his gonzo youth, occasionally writing in the last-call macho-maudlin style that Nick Tosches has made a career of. There are too many recitations of crazy intoxicated antics, which can be as tedious as descriptions of other people’s dreams. This is the book of a narcissist; no one else would undertake such an intensive study of his own life. But Carr is an intelligent, incisive narcissist, always ready to undermine his own habitual self-mythologizing. He’s also a hugely impressive reporter, and The Night of the Gun sets a new standard for truth in autobiography, proving that the self is the slipperiest of subjects.