Hang around journalism long enough, and you're bound to run across a merciless editor more than willing to send you out to seek the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of some desperate and depraved human tragedy. But it's unlikely even the most fiendish newsroom sadist would ever dare to assign what New York Times columnist David Carr has ruthlessly imposed upon himself. Carr, in what has to be acknowledged as a brilliant stroke of innovative memoir, voluntarily assumed the task of gathering the dirt on one of the most despicable, lowlife journalists to ever prowl a beat: himself. The title of this nonfiction work, The Night of the Gun, is derived from an incident that occurred in March 1987 in which Carr claims his friend, Donald, pulled a gun on him after a drunken, coke-induced bar brawl on the hood of a full-sized Ford. Almost 20 years later, Carr, now clean and sober, shows up on Donald's doorstep to interview him concerning the details of the pistol packing misadventure.
"I think you might have had it," Donald offers in a muddled attempt to remember who brandished the weapon on that distant night of youthful, felony-laced debauchery.
Carr is incredulous regarding his old pal's faulty recall. He pointedly informs the reader that he's "not a gun guy." He doesn't even remember owning a gun. Deeper investigation ensues. What Carr eventually unearths goes to the very core of memory and the credibility of memoir itself. Further testimony by other witnesses reveals that Carr has little factual knowledge of the true nature of the gun incident or many of the other highlights of his former coke-shooting, baby-abandoning, female-beating self. The Night of the Gun has to rank as one of the most vicious hatchet jobs ever written. If I were Carr, I'd sue myself for defamation of character. In spite of it all, you find yourself laughing. In seemingly endless confessions of horrid and outrageous behavior, Carr systematically depicts himself as so unlikable that even the most devoted lovers of Hunter S. Thompson and the excesses of Gonzo journalism will have trouble embracing the author's abusive behavior. You end up hating Carr, but admiring his skills and perseverance as a journalist. And the thoughtless cad doesn't even have the common decency to wrap it all up with a happy and reassuring ending. Anyone in recovery from drugs or alcohol will feel their skin crawl as Carr struggles with his dependencies. All of us will be forced to admit that we are never free from our demons, and that the next fall from grace is always looming on the edges of our delusions of normalcy.
The Night of the Gun does have a few annoying flaws that a more attentive editor might have spared Carr. He has a tendency to go over the same ground, as if the reader were on a bar stool next to an eloquent but overly loquacious booze boor. Like many memoirs, this book features quotes by other famous people at the head of each chapter. The fact that the same quote by Norman Mailer from The Armies Of The Night is used to begin both chapters two and 15 had me scurrying back through the volume to fact check my own sometimes faulty memory. Despite these oversights, The Night of the Gun is a lyrical masterpiece of revelation and sets a new bar for the memoir. Carr expertly uses words to paint a highly disturbing self-portrait. In the end, it proves to be a vivid and frightening picture of human frailty.