Grim notes from underground

Writer recalls, researches his own addiction

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Richard Eder
August 10, 2008

The Night of the Gun
By David Carr
Simon & Schuster, 389 pp., illustrated, $26

What use is grace unless it's under pressure? Never mind the crystalline quality of the water if it merely dribbles from the tap. David Carr's weekly "Media Equation" column, in The New York Times, is one of the most lucid and transparent of its news columns. Cutting fine but deep, Carr's ideas land on paper with little of the transmission loss that writer stylistics can leach from a writer's thought. And they are propelled by indignation, though schooled.

Carr stands at the respected top of his profession. Twenty-one years ago he was at the bottom, not just of a profession but life as well. At 31 he was fired in brilliant mid-career from a small but vigorous Minneapolis paper. Ten years of wild partying and a hellish downward spiral from pot and alcohol to cocaine and then to crack had caught up with him.

"The Night of the Gun" is Carr's record of downfall and climb-back; both are told unsparingly, the first with grisly detail, the second without complacency. The climb was perilous all the way, and it remains perilous still. In essence, Carr tries to connect the seemingly ruined "That Guy" with the seemingly saved "This Guy."

"Seemingly" is the key, despite the writer's achievements, his nice suburban home, a loyal second wife, and two grown twin daughters. (Brands plucked from the fire, these: He and their mother were both heavily on crack. The babies were 2 1/2 months premature and weighed less than 3 pounds. Saving their lives and caring for them became the point and pivot for Carr's long, bumpy, and always uncertain recovery.)

The wild years are vividly recounted. Cocaine was an enhancement in the short run, providing manic bursts of energy, a sense of omnipotence, and a super-charger effect on his scoop-filled newspaper work.

There was a lurid downside, of course. What was to be a climactic interview with Minnesota's governor over a state-house scandal ended with the latter mopping anxiously at the blood that suddenly gushed from Carr's nose. There was the first wife who couldn't abide the wildness and left, and a longtime lover whom Carr brutally beat when she showed signs of clinging.

Going from inhaling cocaine to smoking crack turned savage disorder into savage near-catatonia. No more enhancement, only an obsessive pursuit of the stuff. Even Carr's partying friends fell away, and some of his dealers, and his work crumbled. So did the woman he lived with: a respectable housewife and big-time coke dealer and the twins' mother, who followed him into his crack habit.

Shame, which gnawed into even the wildest addiction, finally got through. With the mother unavailable, the plight of the babies pushed Carr through four failed rehabilitation efforts until a fifth - a harsh, bare-bones program - began a shaky, day-by-day progress. Painfully he began to mend himself, taking on the role of single father, doing a series of newspaper jobs, rising finally to edit the Washington City Paper, and then to the Times. He married, bought a house, and assumed a stance of normality.

By 2002, it all seemed permanent. Why not indulge in a few drinks? A series of sodden benders followed - during one, he almost killed his daughters driving them upstate - then detox, and the realization that "normality" needed to be fought for each day. "I'm nice - friendly, even - but I am a maniac who simply enjoys the fruits of acting normal" is his somber conclusion.

What allowed Carr to achieve this much when so many others failed? There were his daughters. There were his parents and sister, repeatedly devastated and unfailingly there. His father, who'd conquered his own alcoholism and rebuilt his life, delivered the harshest and most loving of rebukes at the wake of a cousin, dead from addiction: "Is this what you have planned for us?" Finally, there was the knowledge that he could shine at the profession he cared so passionately about.

The book overcomes many of the difficulties of the confessional genre, though not all. There is nothing of "once I was lost and now I'm saved"; quite the opposite. The writing is taut and vivid, the incidents dramatically set out, the characters painfully alive. (This is true for the first two-thirds; the later successes have a touch of the round-robin family newsletter.)

Most striking is the pairing of his recollections with interviews, years later, with those who were involved. It gives a journalistic solidity to the work of memory, which turns out to be sometimes incomplete or plain wrong. Journalism performed on oneself is unusual; here it pretty much works.

There remains the confessional difficulty. Writing about addiction as a process is one thing, and Carr does it well. Writing about it as a revelation of character is another, and harder. What Carr goes through is vivid and instructive. He himself comes out so driven, so harsh, and so self-absorbed - perhaps inevitably - as to make his book more a mirror than a window. We are invited into his ordeal; his company is less inviting.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

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