Rarely does an opportunity for payback come with such delicious irony.
But the truth is, the fact that The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life–His Own, the new book by David Carr, is repetitive, self-serving and dull, brings me no joy. This despite the fact that almost exactly ten years ago, when Carr was the editor of the Washington City Paper, he ran a hit piece on me and a book I had just published. The book, Wasted, is a terrible and embarrassing recovery memoir. It’s about how I quit drinking. The City Paper reporter, Courtney Rubin, wrote that the market for recovery memoirs was saturated, that there was no point to my book, and that basically I was a fool. She also managed to make several mistakes in the short piece, not the least of which was writing that my high school, Georgetown Prep, was run by “super strict nuns.” Of course, Georgetown Prep is a Jesuit school.
So here we are ten years later and David Carr, who is now a columnist for the New York Times, has produced…a recovery memoir. If the market for these things was saturated ten years ago, by now most of them are so full of cliches that they are all but unreadable. Carr’s is no exception. He was a drunk and crack addict and did a lot of dumb things growing up in Minneapolis. He also beat women, including two girlfriends in one day, one of whom — the future mother of his child — suffered a broken rib. Despite this, Carr managed to land a job as the editor of a Minneapolis weekly, the Twin Cities Reader. It was there he told a female staffer she has a “nice rack.” From there he went, after a stop or two, to the New York Times. Something tells me that if Carr were a Republican the Times would not find his Maileresque romps so forgivable.
Carr admits that after fourteen years of sobriety he drank and did drugs again in 2002, and drank his way through his coverage of Hurricane Katrina. The Night of the Gun recounts all of this with the banality typical of the one-downsmanship drunkie genre. Think of a well-used trope from the recovery genre, open Carr’s book, and presto. Sassy, pseudo-self-deprecating language? Check. “Where does a junkie’s time go? I know how it goes: in fifteen-minute increments, like a bug-eyed Tarzan, swinging from hit to hit.” Self-aggrandizement disguised as humility? Check. “Erin and Megan [Carr’s kids] grew up with a broad understanding of what ‘normal’ was supposed to be.” Redemption without the guilt or shame? Did I mention where he works now?
This is all unfortunate, because Carr is one of the most enjoyable journalists working today. His column is one of the few reasons I have left for picking up the New York Times. He writes with punch and color, and is very funny. It is truly baffling that this gifted writer, who has covered everything from the Oscars to Rupert Murdoch, didn’t go with his strength and write a book about the modern media. Particularly sharp is Carr’s coverage of the collapsing newspaper industry. In one column he sat down with an old colleague from the City Paper and asked him, “So you think we’re going to outrun this rock?” The answer, we now know, is no. Even a compilation of Carr’s Times pieces would be fresher than The Night of the Gun.
Yet Carr has added a twist to The Night of the Gun that supposedly gives it more ballast as a candid work of true journalism: he interviews people who were present for his arrests, hospital stays, job interviews, etc. This is supposed to keep Carr on the up and up, but has the unfortunate effect of compounding the narcissism inherent in the recovery memoir. So why did you give me, a crack head, a job? Carr asks. Why, because you had such amazing guts and charisma, the editor answers. It’s navel-gazing with mirrors.
Carr also avoids the monster bong on the coffee table: media bias and lies. His self-scrutiny and rigorous 12-step honesty doesn’t including asking if he has worked with or enabled journalists who are liars — although Jayson Blair gets a brief and innocuous mention. This would certainly have given The Night of the Gun real weight and showed an impressive level of integrity and nerve.
THIS BRINGS ME to the reason I haven’t talked to David Carr in over ten years. Even before the City Paper piece on me ran, I knew that the paper had a habit of rewriting copy to the point of falsifying the reporter’s original story. It had happened to me personally. Then a friend of mine, a woman who is now a successful journalist and book author, told me that a piece of hers was changed so dramatically that the meaning was the opposite of her original copy. As a result, a woman she profiled went from being a sympathetic character to what one City Paper editor, while chuckling, called “the freak of the week.” That editor, while not David Carr, worked under Carr and is still at the paper. Indeed, he is interviewed in Carr’s self-hagiography.
At the time I was naive about just how dishonest most journalists are, and was truly shocked that a newspaper would simply make stuff up; up until then I thought the letters the paper always got from people claiming they had been slandered was just the usual whining from the overly sensitive. But my friend’s account of how her copy had been changed disturbed me. I kept thinking of the woman who had been the victim of the slander, how tens of thousands of people would read the story and get an impression of her that was false. My father had been a journalist. Like Carr, I had been influenced by Woodward and Bernstein. But beyond personal ties and the history of journalism, it was a moral crime, an assault on truth and deeply hurtful maligning of another human being.
Eventually I wrote an account of what happened for the New York Press. The last I heard from David Carr was ten years ago, a terse email expressing sadness and anger that I had gone public.
He never got around to interviewing me for The Night of the Gun.