ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT ARTS & CULTURE

Reporter David Carr investigates his past

Since everyone nowadays seems to save the worst for first, it's likely you've already heard the gory bits about New York Times media columnist David Carr's former life.

That tub of detergent he had to dunk his arm in to clean off the track-mark scabs.

His twin daughters' entrance to the world as Mom and Dad hit the crack pipe.

And, yes, the hopeful turning point after he leaves said infants alone in the car on a winter night to score, promising it will be his last. (It wasn't.)

These aren't just notes on another newspaper scandal or some smear campaign. Carr did it to himself. It all comes directly from his own pen in a big, brave book, "The Night of the Gun," an unusually meticulous memoir of his years gone missing -- a journey tunneling deep into his addiction.

"The Night of the Gun" is about as dark and murky as dark and murky get. And though it is one of the most eloquent accounts of the seduction and snare of addiction, what's gotten lost in the water-cooler discussion about Carr's misadventures -- including drug peddling as well as his bout with cancer -- is that this book, in its sharp, serrated prose, is a meditation on how memory works (but mostly how it doesn't), a man's obsessive effort to get at his life's true narrative using the skills he's honed as a reporter, the one piece of his life that didn't combust.

Another junkie memoir on the pile?

Not at all.

Whose gun?

The night and the gun of the title are details plucked, like shrapnel, from his dim history: evidence that something happened, it's just that the something isn't so clear. They are elements of an anecdote he's carried as fact for two decades, a formative memory on which the book -- and his life -- turn. Who had the gun?: "[I]f I can't tell a true story about one of the worst days of my life," he writes, "what about the rest of those days, that life, this story?"

Carr went back to his friend Donald to compare notes. Their versions of that night dramatically diverged, as Carr writes: " 'I never owned a gun,' he said. 'I think you might have had it.' " And that set Carr on the road to find out what else was misremembered or had gone missing.

Carr's literary conceit was to dig. To go out and report his story as he would an investigative chops-busting profile. "I want to put things in context, but I'm not going to cut this guy slack nohow," he says in a voice full of scratch and struggle, as worn as a tired hinge. And dig deep he did, gathering string: police documents, snapshots, newspaper clips, psychiatric evaluations. He stirs up unresolved business with ex-lovers, old bosses, family members, mentors, former dealers and recovery buddies.

"I really didn't have a good idea what an embarrassing activity -- experience -- it would be. It's like, knock back and say: 'See that huge scab on your shoulder? Do you mind tearing that off? . . . Oh, and by the way, I'm going to start this video camera,' " he says, removing his ink-black Ray-Bans before settling in across the table, now on the other side of the microphone. It's another quick spin through his life's debris before a recent L.A. reading.

"After I left, I'm sure they just said, 'What in the hell was that about? What is that guy doing?' " Soon he began to wonder the same thing, but only briefly. He thought it too risky to let that thought snake around the brain too long.

It's one thing, he explains, to lock yourself in a room and spar gloveless with your past and something else entirely to confront the people you wronged: the lawyers you stiffed, the girlfriends you hit, the friends you abandoned. It takes confrontation and contriteness to a rare level. Some might call it narcissism. Carr would be among them: "I think if I had taken time out in the middle to . . . really examine the fulsome narcissism of it, I would have just been paralyzed in my tracks. I don't think that would have been a good time to hit the pause button."

As he rolled toward publication, he sent galleys to family and friends. "That's part of the gesture of transparency of the book. They got to see [it] and offer emendations. One guy, . . . he didn't like the idea of it or his presence in it. So that's what we negotiated. That's how people got ready."

The story breaks

What no document or draft could prepare Carr for, he's realized, was the moment the book greeted the world.

"I think the person who was the least ready was me," he says. Even though he'd been living with it and in it, he recalls, "I had no idea what I'd done." That's when second thoughts began to spin anew: "I had no idea how dark this book was. I think of myself as a daddy who sobered up and got custody of his kids. So [as I was writing] I concentrated on all of the good parts. So I wasn't really ready for the fact that I had cast myself as a thug."

Carr, at 52, seems at once comfortable in his skin and not. He wears the arc of his life like a suit that doesn't quite fit as it once did. One of the devices he's set up in the book is a This Guy/That Guy dichotomy to deal with the most harrowing episodes from his past. "There are two stories you can tell," he says. "One is the nice redemption story: addiction, welfare, cancer, getting the nice house and the nice job. That's the one I'm focusing on. Then there is the other story about someone who is vicious and unaccountable." But to actually see those details about himself in newsprint was something else: "The first time one of those stories ran that sort of focused -- as the media will do -- on pathology -- I started squealing and freaking out. My wife Jill just said to me, 'Don't be one of those people. Buy the ticket. Take the ride.' "

If anyone should know the drill it would be Carr. "I mean, I cover media. . . . But you have to understand, I was [writing] in a cabin. I had my database. I pretended that I was writing about someone else," he says. "Like I did a very vigorous and thorough job on this guy right now. I just forgot he was me."

In fact, while he was still gathering string on his own life, the 2006 James Frey false memoir fiasco was exploding: "So I'm watching all this stuff come apart in plain view and seeing these guys wander onto 'Oprah' and get their arms and legs torn off." It just reinforced his decision that no matter how uncomfortable the exercise was, it was necessary. "If I'm going to do this thing, I'm going to triple-rivet it. That's one. Two, I thought there would be artistic and commercial salience in doing it this way. In other words, put some rubber around a pretty bald tire."

The reviews have been mostly solid -- if not glowing -- and he's been squeezing in promotion around his day gig. As a result, more shadows from the past have wandered into view, adding to the tale; some of the voices will appear on the book's website, part of an online narrative (including video and audio from his research) Carr updates as the story spins along.

The process has had other serendipitous benefits. If there was anyone more worried about the fallout of this tale, it was the twins' mother, Anna. "It's been a long, tortured dialogue that ended really, really happily. She thought it would ruin the relationship with her daughters, but instead it got a conversation going that hadn't been there for years. It contextualized her behavior," he says. She had "been just terrified of this book, and I just said, 'Honey, if you're looking under the bus, you're going to see me.' "

Catharsis

Now that he's on the other side of it, Carr realizes that looking at your life in 360 is different from looking in a mirror: "There's a lot of ways to be a junkie and a drunk, but my way was one that created maximum collateral damage." Was he choosing chaos or did chaos choose him? And was his stumble three years ago -- after 14 years of sobriety -- some kind of midlife crisis, as one friend suggested? Instead of the red car and the girlfriend, he just started lifting the glass again? "Could be true," Carr concedes.

The thing that hasn't happened, that he was expecting? "Catharsis," he says. "Still really the same guy." He pauses. "Let me be clearer about that." This going around and talking, this protracted act of living amends, has "been really good for my chemical health. The chances that I'm going to be the author touring behind his recovery memoir and going back to his hotel and drinking scotch and staring into the wreckage of my past?" He lets the question hang. "I know. I know how that would turn out."

lynell.george@latimes.com

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