Book Review: The Night of the Gun

These are reviews/thoughts/musings of books that I have read recently. All books rated on a scale of 1-5. Today’s review is on New York Times reporter David Carr’s 2008 memoir ‘The Night of the Gun’. 

Memoirs, by rule, are usually my least favorite books to read. This type of writing is oftentimes literary masturbation, and even the most talented writers somehow get less interesting when they write about themselves. Our currently super-connected society of bloggers, 24/7 social media networks and reality shows allow us to keep our nose in everybody’s business in real time. We are so inundated in the lives of others this that spending 400 pages hearing about a person’s personal troubles is, more often than not, the last thing I want to do.

That said, the best memoirs take us places we’ve never been before, allowing us to take a peek behind the curtain of something unfamiliar. This may explain the rapid ascent of the “junkie memoir”; books about addicts hitting rock bottom and, usually finding redemption. Let’s not make any mistake about this: David Carr’s The Night of the Gun is a junkie memoir, however much Carr tries to dress it up as something else.

Night of the Gun tries to do something different in style, as Carr seems to be as bored with the structure of the memoir as the rest of us. The title stems from an incident in the 80’s where Carr scraped the bottom of the barrel, a one-day catastrophe in which he gets fired from his job because of his substance abuse issues, decides to get hammered with a friend as a response, then turns on his own friend and comes knocking on said friend’s doorstep ready to kick his ass only to find his friend holding a gun and telling him to leave before he calls the police. A couple of decades later, sober and clear-headed, he recounts this incident with this same friend, who points out to him that he is misremembering: it is David himself who had the gun that night.

Stunned by the fact that his memory failed him, Carr decides to put his reporter hat on and investigate the darkest years of his life by going back and interviewing the people around him during that time. The subjects are an interesting cast of characters, from ex-lovers, fellow junkie friends, dealers, drug counselor and, randomly, Tom Arnold (Carr gives everyone only a first name in this book, giving it a very Alcoholics Anonymous feel, so you don’t realize that his comedian friend ‘Tom’ is Arnold until he later marries another comedian with issues named ‘Roseanne’).

The book starts off explosively, with ruminations on memory, drugs and a life lived in tatters, and it is itself a thrilling read for the first quarter of the book. However, the interviews begin to take a repetitive tone–“You were really talented and fucked up” is the gist of all of them–and the story begins to turn into the redemptive junkie memoir Carr seemed to be trying to avoid. His redemption story, while no doubt impressive, just isn’t the page turner that it promised in it’s opening pages.

This is a man with a motor, and it’s a testament to his talent and work ethic that he was able to turn himself from a junkie into a big-time writer for the New York Times, but somehow his redemptive arc, where he finds sobriety and inspiration in the form of his twin daughters, his career and a new wife, misses the mark. The third quarter of the book is a slog to get through and I found myself wondering if I could even finish it at some point. The book has a stronger ending, as Carr spells out the difficulty of life as a recovering addict through his relapse and subsequent struggles even after sobriety and success, but the book ends on a much softer note than it began.

Part of the problem is that Carr fails to explore any reasons for his addiction beyond it running in his Irish blood–he tells you that he got hammered on all kinds of drugs, tells you that he beat his girlfriends, but fails to tell you what inside of him is causing this kind of behavior. His twin daughters serve as the main reason for his recovery, and he paints them as two successful, happy and intelligent girls who overcame great difficulties to become great people. Which is great–but then in the last few pages mentions one of them having psychiatric difficulties, hinting that maybe all is not quite as roses and rainbows as it seems. While I appreciate not wanting to get into the personal life of his teenage daughter, it makes the previous flowery narrative feel somewhat disingenuous.

Carr is not really a good person, and to his credit he does not make an effort to hide it and paint himself as a hero. He is an abuser of both women and drugs, a serial charmer who gets everybody on his side and uses them for his purposes. He proves to be a difficult (if very, very competent boss), a cheapskate (multiple lawyers who helped him in his time of need found themselves stiffed on payment at the end of the day), a liar and a selfish asshole (during his relapse, him getting behind the wheel of a car plastered with his daughters in the car is as bad as anything he did during his 80s downfall). The fact that he is open about this side of himself is admirable, but brownie points does not make a great story.

With all that said–Carr is a good writer (you can tell by his prose he is a reporter by and by) and he at least attempts to do something different with his memories here. That said, reading about drugs and self-destructive partying is only interesting for so long, and despite his best efforts to make this one a little bit different this book, which clocks in at a bloated 400 pages, overstays its welcome.

Rating: **

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