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From AJR,   August/September 2008  issue

Investigating His Own Dark Story   

The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own. By David Carr Simon & Schuster 388 pages; $26


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

For most journalists, the route to the New York Times doesn't generally include crack smoking, drug dealing, spouse beating and jail time. But all those activities preceded David Carr's arrival in the big time.

Both enthralling and appalling, "The Night of the Gun" lays out in merciless detail Carr's rise from Minnesota's alternative papers to Times media columnist while wallowing in a dangerous double life.

Beyond the sensational story, fellow journalists will find something even more beneficial. Carr's method the re-reporting of his own life provides a humbling study of the fallibility of memory, the elusiveness of truth and the futility of ever assuming you really know what's going on. This should be eye-opening not just to memoir writers but to reporters investigating, say, the justification for a war.

Carr takes his title from an unsettling incident. One day in 1987 he gets fired from a Minnesota business magazine over his drinking and cocaine use. Carr pops some pills and meets a friend at a bar. They end up fighting. The friend goes home, but Carr calls and insists on coming over. The friend orders him to stay away, saying he has a gun. Carr shows up anyway. The friend comes to the door with the gun and calls the police, and Carr flees.

Almost 20 years later, they relive the story. It all happened that way, the friend tells him, except for one thing. It was Carr, not the friend, who brandished the gun. Positive he has never possessed a weapon, Carr doublechecks with another friend. "Yeah," that friend confirms, "you did have one."

Carr is stunned. "If I was wrong about the gun," he wonders, "what else was I wrong about?" So he decides to find out.

He spends three years tracking down and interviewing some 60 old friends, lovers, spouses, bosses, drug buddies, therapists and lawyers.

He gathers intimate medical files. One counselor's notes from 1988 summarize his treatment and conclude, heartbreakingly but accurately: "Prognosis: poor." He compiles his own numerous police records, including an episode, which he can't remember, when he was arrested for beating a cab driver.

Carr even interviews his twin daughters, who confront him with excruciating scenes: "We had to pull into a gas station, and you didn't see an oncoming car, and we were, like, this close to hitting it. That's when everyone knew for sure that you were just completely ass-faced drunk."

Often he finds himself misremembering events or not recollecting them at all. He learns that others have far different versions.

Take Anna, the mother of Carr's twins. A drug dealer, Anna was doing crack when her water broke and the babies arrived two months early. Interviewed 19 years later, she remembered Carr smoking crack in her hospital room. He had "no personal recollection."

On and on goes this painful self-examination, like "crawling over broken glass in the dark": Carr doing drugs with a 15-year-old girl, biting and choking women, and surviving both Hodgkin's lymphoma and at least nine arrests.

One day, he woke up hung over, realized he was due to interview the governor, snorted some coke, and went. Soon Carr's nose began bleeding furiously, and he finished the interview with wads of tissue up his nostril.

Through it all, he somehow continued writing, succeeding at reporting and editing jobs in Minnesota, at Washington City Paper and at the now-defunct Inside.com. His work, as excerpted in the book, is compelling. When he re-interviewed editors who hired him despite his troubles, they say things like, "I thought we needed someone who was a little irreverent."

After numerous rounds of treatment, he found a therapeutic community in late 1988 and stayed sober 14 years. But he relapsed in 2002, entering detox three years later and making it through. He had been contacted and hired by the Times in the meantime, and while it isn't clear how much they knew, the paper and colleagues provided important support.

Like his life, his book is messy but unforgettable. It skips around in time, muddies facts and refers to everyone by first names only (including such recognizable figures as TV star "Tommy" Arnold and editor "Howell" Raines). But Carr writes with ingratiating candor.

"If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story?" he asks. "What if instead I wrote I was a recovered addict who obtained custody of my twin girls, got us off welfare, and raised them by myself..."

"The Night of the Gun" graphically reinforces truisms reporters know but neglect: Everything is suspect, from our memories and sources to our precious preconceptions. Few flaws turn out worse than assuming we know the whole story.