Book review: A long night's journey into day

  • Article by: ANDREA HOAG
  • Updated: August 8, 2008 - 5:12 PM

In an often harrowing tale, New York Times columnist David Carr takes a hard look at his unsavory past.

David Carr, The Night of the Gun

"When Anna's water broke in her living room on Oliver Avenue, I had just handed her a crack pipe."

It's hard to admire a writer capable of penning these words.

No matter. Any reader who loves a story of hard-won redemption will surely come to admire David Carr's stunningly smart new chronicle of drug use and despair set in Minneapolis in the 1980s.

Trading crack pipe for pen, the Hopkins native is now a New York Times columnist, preceded by a long journalistic career in the Twin Cities and a stint at a Washington, D.C., alternative weekly.

Considering how bad this story gets -- oh, and it gets bad -- no small amount of courage was required to purge this author's past and construct a can't-look-away memoir that soars high above other books within the formidable addiction-lit genre.

"Going back over my history has been like crawling over broken glass in the dark," Carr confides. "I hit women, scared children, assaulted strangers, and chronically lied and gamed to stay high. I read about That Guy with the same sense of disgust that almost anyone else would. ... "

How did "that guy" become "this guy," a sober, loving father and law-abiding member of the mainstream media?

Don't worry, Carr will explain everything. First, however, he will drag himself -- readers in tow -- back over that broken glass to visit crack houses and soundproofed shooting galleries, strip clubs and flophouses.

Along the way, we'll need to make a few stops some of us would rather avoid during the light of day: McCready's Pub, Moby Dick's, the Cabooze. ...

Here comes the obligatory disclaimer: Simply reading Carr's misanthropic tales of overindulgence may give you one hell of a contact high.

Revisiting "the darkest story of his life" two decades after turning his life around, the former Twin Cities Reader editor was determined to gather the facts of his own case with as much journalistic detachment as possible, recording interviews on tape and hiring another reporter to work "behind" him.

Still, he admits: "It is one thing to talk about how back in the day you were a narcissistic, abusive loser. It is another to show up two decades later in apparent sound mind and body and proceed to engage in reporting on your own life, a vainglorious endeavor that is presumptuous in [the] extreme. ... Fact-checking what I remembered is a fine idea in the abstract, but as a practical matter, it made me feel like a golem of my own abasement."

Memories don't unfold chronologically, and neither does Carr's memoir. It is easy to understand why the author couldn't bear to write it that way; doing so might have terrorized readers far beyond the precipice of forgiveness.

After all, could we stomach all the drug use Carr blithely witnessed as his then-girlfriend carried his babies if the writer had failed to deliver a hasty epilogue shoehorned into the action? Weighing the demands of his fatherly conscience over the rules of narrative arc, Carr cannot withhold the news that "those little babies [are] now on their way to college."

Smart choice, Dad.

Otherwise, I doubt that even the most forgiving could excuse Carr for smoking crack in the hospital room after the premature birth of his twin girls.

Or for abandoning the snow-suited infants in a Chevy Nova during a Minnesota winter while he pursued his next fix for several hours.

Or for losing his children to foster care.

Mercifully, Carr sings his redemption song in the memoir's second half, and even if it is sometimes played in a decidedly mournful key, he makes it.

His daughters make it. As a matter of fact, they thrive.

No matter which details Carr hoped to chase down as he began writing this difficult, ultimately life-affirming memoir, the real question is not whether readers will forgive him for his brutal past.

The question is: Will Carr forgive himself?

Andrea Hoag is a Lawrence, Kan., book critic whose work appears in U.S. newspapers and Publishers Weekly.

  • NIGHT OF THE GUN

    By: David Carr.

    Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 400 pages, $26.

    Review: The author, a New York Times media columnist, takes himself as the subject in a brave, riveting memoir of his history of and eventual emergence from substance abuse.

    Events: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 14, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.; 7:30 p.m. Aug. 18, with Garrison Keillor, Virginia Street Swedenborgian Church, 170 Virginia St., St. Paul; sponsored by Common Good Books.

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