The mystique surrounding Minneapolis native David Carr has grown since his death, at 58, in 2015. He now bears the complex aura of devoted friend and mentor, tough editor, redeemed junkie, author of the bestselling memoir “The Night of the Gun” and celebrated “face” of the New York Times, where his intelligence, compassion and humor won the admiration of peers. We have sorely needed the grounding provided by “Final Draft,” in which his widow gathers more than 50 features and other pieces written throughout Carr’s 25-year career.
David Carr was a quintessential journalist, with an endless curiosity about life.
In sentences “as clear and straight as spring water,” to borrow a phrase from Rudyard Kipling, he wrote about media, politics, popular culture and other topics with an honest, often blunt, sometimes biting style that eviscerated phoniness, especially when it besmirched the craft he loved. He lambasted TV talk shows for welcoming the “pirate sensibilities” of Ann Coulter because “seeing hate speech pop out of a blonde who knows her way around a black cocktail dress makes for compelling viewing.” He called the New Republic in its plagiarism-plagued years a “hotbed of adolescently malevolent con artists with notepads.”
But in lengthy profiles, he could embrace gifted celebrities, often addicts, with understanding: “serial relapser” Robert Downey Jr. and his “romance with mind-altering chemicals,” Neil Young, whose “brokenness has annealed rather than slowed him” at age 66, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who “got in the ring with his addiction and battled it for two decades successfully.”
The articles, arranged chronologically, trace Carr’s work from his days as a writer and editor in Minnesota in the 1980s, at the Twin Cities Reader, Family Times and elsewhere, including personal accounts of a fishing trip with addicts from Eden House, his battles with cancer and his friendship with comedian Tom Arnold. Twin Cities journalism fills one-third of the book.
In 1995, Carr moved on to editing Washington City Paper, where he mentored Ta-Nehisi Coates (who provides a warm foreword) and demonstrated his versatility by profiling singer Lucinda Williams and parsing a badly reported account of suburban preteen oral sex.
As media columnist for the New York Times beginning in 2000, Carr wrote about Bill Cosby’s enablers (including Carr himself) who ignored the comic’s harassment of women, Fox News, the Chicago Tribune, Julian Assange and the rise of digital publishing. There are also deeply reported stories from the Atlantic (on the dubious value of homeland security) and New York Magazine as well as lighter outings on cats and commuting.
In an unexpected gift to young journalists, the book contains the engaging syllabus for a communications class Carr taught at Boston University in 2014. Filled with knockout reading lists, the 12-page outline offers Carr’s credo: “Who you are and what you have been through should give you a prism on life that belongs to you only.”
His own hard-won prism illuminates much of this gratifying book.
Joseph Barbato, an author and journalist, has reviewed for the Washington Post and USA Today. He is a former contributing editor at Publishers Weekly.
Final Draft: The Collected Work of David Carr
Edited by: Jill Rooney Carr.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 400 pages, $28.