Tom Matlack reflects on David Carr’s book The Night of the Gun, and recognizes too much of himself in it.
A month ago a friend who aspires to write something worthwhile, as do I, told me to watch “Page One.” He knew I had once run a newspaper company so would have a natural interest in the inside look at the New York Times. But what really caught my eye was this insane, awesome, daring writer David Carr. I had read him off and on for years but never really pieced together who he is.
This same friend recommended Carr’s memoir, The Night of the Gun, knowing that Carr and I shared a history of addiction. I faintly remembered hearing Carr on NPR being interviewed for the book in the aftermath of the debunking of A Million Little Pieces. At the time Carr’s book came out in 2008 I was a decade sober myself, the kids I had gotten sober to father had reached junior high, and I had gotten remarried and had a third child. I remember being highly cynical of some reporter who investigated his own story to try to figure out what was true.
Today was a great day. My wife and our 7 year-old son are vacationing with friends for the second year in a row on St. Barts. Gorgeous villa with an eternity pool on a cliff overlooking crashing waves with a rocky island in the distance. Bright red roofs and whitewashed houses dot the landscape. I spent the morning playing “fishy, fishy” in the pool, taking naps, and eating French pastry. This afternoon we went to Saline beach where bathing suits are optional and quite honestly the water is more like some kind of medicinal bath that cures whatever might ail you—clear, salty, warm. I plopped down on my towel and read the following passage:
As hobbies go, shooting coke is the worst. At least with heroin, people nod out for hours. With IV coke use, the addict has to reload every twenty minutes, find a new way in. That’s a lot of equipment, a lot of blood, a lot of mayhem. After a while it was needles, blood, babies, and piles of dirty clothes. High or not, it was hellish to behold. I just wanted a moment’s peace, a respite from the chronic waking thought—drunk or sober, drugged or not—that I was perhaps the lowest bastard who ever lived. A couple of days of detox with microwave macaroni and cheese, mooched ciggies, and sleep—blessed, elusive sleep—sounded like the beach in St. Barts.
–The Night of the Gun by David Carr
Fucking asshole, he’s got me dead to rights. This is the beginning of the end of Carr’s using, or rather somewhere near the end of the end: he gives up his baby twins, gets arrested an hour later, goes to detox, comes out and parties one more time before going to a six month treatment program that worked.
I had two babies. In my case not twins but six months and two years old. I didn’t do crack with the mother of my children the night her water broke, as Carr did, but I was hardly Mr. Cleaver either. I managed to have a promising career involving newspapers (he was a writer, I was a finance guy) that seemed to somehow be stitched together by addiction until it was not. I was never a druggie. Just the booze for me. But the feeling is pretty much the same.
The fact that I am actually on a beach in St. Barts rather than the metaphoric life raft of detox in the middle of an addiction hurricane means nothing. We are the same. Men who lost everything in pursuit of a false dream fueled by substance and obsession that rotted our soul until there was nothing left.
John Updike called it part of our “dead, unrecoverable selves.” When the past is shifted to the present moment, it is infected by a consistency bias that requires all things fit together, whether they do or not. Examine your own family history and folklore if you don’t buy it. How many of those stories are literally, exactly true?
Memoir is a very personal form of creation myth. Whether it is in the form of a book or something told across the intimacy of first date candlelight, the this-is-me, this-is-who-I-am story is a myth in the classical sense, a tale with personal gods and touchstones. It becomes more and more sacred as it is told. And perhaps less and less truthful.
What sets Carr’s memoir apart from all other addiction narratives, and frankly every other memoir I have ever read, is his contention that writing the truth of your own life is a fool’s errand even if you have expert investigative reporting skills as he does.
The two central events of the book—a night in which Carr turned on his best friend and one of them pulled a gun and later when Carr drove his baby twins to a crack house and left them outside in snowsuits hoping they wouldn’t freeze or get stolen while he got his fix—turn out to be vastly different than Carr remembers them to be when he tries to link his own memory with eye witnesses and whatever hard evidence he can turn up.
In the process Carr brings into question the whole idea of memoir as an art form that has anything in common with truth. And also the shines a light on the damage done writing first person narrative when the people involved have vastly different recollection of fact or, equally destructive, when the truth is not the writer’s to tell.
I’ve learned all this the hard way. Thankfully I am not a New York Times columnist nor could I even get my piss-poor memoir published other than in small parts by two-bit websites and then on my own GMP creation. But the pain of realization when it comes to supposedly redemptive memoir that is so selfish it hurts everyone who has ever been in any way related to the supposed protagonist is all too familiar.
As Carr points out repeatedly, there is the fundamental problem of the truth, which is often unknowable even if you unleash a whole team of investigators as he did. What happened in the privacy of a home, between family members or friends, isn’t something that even Google Earth keeps on your hard drive. Memory fades and changes facts into a constructed reality, both for the memoirist and those who play characters in his imagined history.
So reporting memory as fact is problematic indeed.
Beyond that is the issue of harm, even if somehow there is undisputable evidence like doctor’s records or court documents, both of which Carr went to great length to track down. If the story involves others, which all stories do, if the facts implicate them as well as the protagonist is it really fair to publish even indisputable fact about someone else? In my case I have realized by unfortunately doing damage where I was trying to do good that answer to that is absolutely not.
Finally, how about the truest story you can tell about yourself and it’s impact on loved ones even now. Excavating deep dark secrets of the past may be liberating to the memoirist, but what about the collateral damage to those within the blast zone now even if they are in no way involved in the tale of misguided actions in year past?
Going back over my history has been like crawling over broken glass in the dark. 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 would. What. An. Asshole. Her, safe in an Adirondack redoubt where I am piecing together the history of That Guy, I often feel I have very little in common with him. And that distance will keep me typing until he turns into this guy.
The thing that makes Carr such a good damn brilliant writer is that he smacked at least a girlfriend and then a wife around, he ended up in jail when he was suppose to be interviewing the chief of police on a drug-related story in that very same building, he left his two infants in a Chevy Nova on a cold Minnesota night to get his drugs, and yet he ends up being if not likable certainly someone you have respect for in his own completely insane honesty. He doesn’t even claim to know how much of his own story is true. He lays out two years of exhaustive investigative reporting so the reader can judge for themselves what is true and what more likely made up.
Carr doesn’t ask, and nothing here is intended to imply, that forgiveness of his transgressions is in order. Only amidst the chaos of real life and searching for the truth is where manhood is to be found for all of us. There are no short cuts.
Photo— Mo Costandi/Flickr