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Writer is the subject of his own hit piece

September 08, 2008|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

Since everyone nowadays seems to save the worst for first, it's likely you've already heard the gory bits about New York Times media columnist David Carr's former life.

That tub of detergent he had to dunk his arm in to clean off the track-mark scabs.

His twin daughters' entrance to the world as Mom and Dad hit the crack pipe.

And, yes, the hopeful turning point after he leaves said infants alone in the car on a winter night to score, promising it will be his last. (It wasn't.)

These aren't just notes on another newspaper scandal or some smear campaign. Carr did it to himself. It all comes directly from his own pen in a big, brave book, "The Night of the Gun," an unusually meticulous memoir of his years gone missing -- a journey tunneling deep into his addiction.

"The Night of the Gun" is about as dark and murky as dark and murky get. And though it is one of the most eloquent accounts of the seduction and snare of addiction, what's gotten lost in the water-cooler discussion about Carr's misadventures -- including drug peddling as well as his bout with cancer -- is that this book, in its sharp, serrated prose, is a meditation on how memory works (but mostly how it doesn't), a man's obsessive effort to get at his life's true narrative using the skills he's honed as a reporter, the one piece of his life that didn't combust.

Another junkie memoir on the pile?

Not at all.

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Whose gun?

The night and the gun of the title are details plucked, like shrapnel, from his dim history: evidence that something happened, it's just that the something isn't so clear. They are elements of an anecdote he's carried as fact for two decades, a formative memory on which the book -- and his life -- turn. Who had the gun?: "[I]f I can't tell a true story about one of the worst days of my life," he writes, "what about the rest of those days, that life, this story?"

Carr went back to his friend Donald to compare notes. Their versions of that night dramatically diverged, as Carr writes: " 'I never owned a gun,' he said. 'I think you might have had it.' " And that set Carr on the road to find out what else was misremembered or had gone missing.

Carr's literary conceit was to dig. To go out and report his story as he would an investigative chops-busting profile. "I want to put things in context, but I'm not going to cut this guy slack nohow," he says in a voice full of scratch and struggle, as worn as a tired hinge. And dig deep he did, gathering string: police documents, snapshots, newspaper clips, psychiatric evaluations. He stirs up unresolved business with ex-lovers, old bosses, family members, mentors, former dealers and recovery buddies.

"I really didn't have a good idea what an embarrassing activity -- experience -- it would be. It's like, knock back and say: 'See that huge scar on your shoulder? Do you mind tearing that off? . . . Oh, and by the way, I'm going to start this video camera,' " he says, removing his ink-black Ray-Bans before settling in across the table, now on the other side of the microphone. It's another quick spin through his life's debris before a recent L.A. reading.

"After I left, I'm sure they just said, 'What in the hell was that about? What is that guy doing?' " Soon he began to wonder the same thing, but only briefly. He thought it too risky to let that thought snake around the brain too long.

It's one thing, he explains, to lock yourself in a room and spar gloveless with your past and something else entirely to confront the people you wronged: the lawyers you stiffed, the girlfriends you hit, the friends you abandoned. It takes confrontation and contriteness to a rare level. Some might call it narcissism. Carr would be among them: "I think if I had taken time out in the middle to . . . really examine the fulsome narcissism of it, I would have just been paralyzed in my tracks. I don't think that would have been a good time to hit the pause button."

As he rolled toward publication, he sent galleys to family and friends. "That's part of the gesture of transparency of the book. They got to see [it] and offer emendations. One guy, . . . he didn't like the idea of it or his presence in it. So that's what we negotiated. That's how people got ready."

--

The story breaks

What no document or draft could prepare Carr for, he's realized, was the moment the book greeted the world.

"I think the person who was the least ready was me," he says. Even though he'd been living with it and in it, he recalls, "I had no idea what I'd done." That's when second thoughts began to spin anew: "I had no idea how dark this book was. I think of myself as a daddy who sobered up and got custody of his kids. So [as I was writing] I concentrated on all of the good parts. So I wasn't really ready for the fact that I had cast myself as a thug."

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