As David Carr tells it, "The dude was addicted to coke, got off the coke, obtained custody of his kids, a single parent, got off welfare, survived cancer, married well... But that's not what is resonating with people. It's much more the pathology."
The dude being Carr, himself. Those kids, twin daughters, that the dude raised? The day their mother's water broke, Carr had been smoking crack with her.
Kurt Andersen calls The Night of the Gun, "a breathtakingly candid, laugh-out-loud funny, heroically rigorous, consistently riveting, and deeply moving account of a nightmarish descent and amazing redemption."
But back to the pathology. Carr writes,
As long as the coke held out, it was mostly silence and goofy grins of satisfaction. The high would last fifteen or twenty minutes, and then the synapses would begin making a fuss — a head full of little baby birds with their beaks open and crying out for more.
After years of sobriety, each of Carr's daughters wrote a personal essay at college, and the stories they told about their lives didn't jibe with his memory. How much did he remember? How much did he ever know?
Carr decided to report his past.
"That really goes with my day job," he explains. A longtime journalist, Carr now writes features and a Monday media column for the New York Times.
So he videotaped interviews with the important people in his life, the cops and counselors, old friends and bosses, his twins and their mother. He read arrest reports and psychological diagnoses, hundreds of his old articles, all the evidence he could find.
When we speak on the phone, the day after an appearance on Colbert, Carr confirms, "I don't write unless I have a file folder that looks like a ham sandwich."
Dave: To read some of your recent press, it won't be long before you're posing in photo shoots as some kind of memoir superhero. "Drug Rehab Memoir Remakes the Genre," shouts the New York Observer.
David Carr: I'm not as bad as some people have said, but I'm most certainly not as good as some people have said either. What am I really saving, if I am? A subgenre of a storied literary niche that existed for hundreds of years and I doubt was in much need of saving. A few memoirs have gone bad here and there, but I don't think they needed some hack newspaper guy to walk in and show them how it was done.
I used the prosaic tools of reporting for my own story. If I kick the can down the road in any respect, I think it's more about the web site we built than my book.
Dave: In The Night of the Gun, you refer to the book and, specifically, to the interviews you conducted, as "a new frontier in the annals of self-involvement." You write, "Even for me it was a new realm of solipsism."
What makes your story worth the attention it's getting?
Carr: It helps that my last name is New York Times. I do think that the contrast between the story and the place where I work creates a level of interest. I'd like to think Pete Hamill would have reviewed my book in the Culture pages of the Times if I didn't work there, but we'll never know.
I got home late last night because I was on Colbert. I certainly wouldn't have been on Colbert if I didn't work at the New York Times, that much I think we can both assume. But when I came home I'd received one of those alerts. I checked it, and it was Pete Hamill reviewing my book.
I had to check my browser and make sure it wasn't some kind of fantasy browser where what you wish would happen actually appears. I checked the dateline and the time. I finally had to print the fucker out. Yes, this really did happen.
Dave: Advantages aside, people are enjoying the book.
Carr: I think the book is good. It works pretty well. Yeah, there's stuff I would change. The conceit of the book might get a little tiresome here and there, but in general I think it works really well.
As a journalist, I have to believe that any story that gets reported is going to grow and get better. That's sort of a tenet of the church I attend, if you will. And the basic story of crackhead loser getting a really good job and living a life beyond all expectation, that never goes out of style. Also, there are a couple ways into it. A lot of the women readers I talk to are sort of interested in my story but they're mostly hanging around wondering what's going to happen to those kids.
Dave: Can you imagine writing Night of the Gun the way you did if not for the controversies of the last few years?
Carr: I don't think I would have got the idea. I might have done the reporting but not baked it in so transparently, and not spent so much time trying to come up with the web site that'll give it a feeling of verisimilitude.
With Night of the Gun, there was a commercial aspect in terms of the proposal, but it was also, If I'm going to do this, I better do it another way because I've seen these people get their arms and legs ripped off. And you know what? I don't think all of them are bad people. I do think that junkie pride, combined with the fog of war, combined with the fallaciousness of personal memory in general, along with the needs of building a story, narrative...
Dave: You chose to report your past. That investigation becomes part of the story you tell.
Carr: One thing people have told me, even people who like the book, is that it zigs and zags a bit. Yeah, sort of like life. If you start patting it down and sanding off the edges, it makes for a smoother narrative but a less true one. I was content to put my documents in, in an order that I thought would work but that wasn't necessarily chronological. I would let them boss me around a little bit.
That really goes with my day job. I write both features and a Monday media column. I don't write unless I have a file folder that looks like a ham sandwich, with a lot of B-matter and interviews. I might not even use the quotes, but I feel safer and more comfortable that way.
I'm not suggesting that therefore every word in my book is true. It is not. Some things that make other books come apart in plain view, I think some of the mistakes might be in there, but they're smaller and they're reported out. I rubbed out a lot of the things that could have tripped me up.
Dave: You smoked a lot of pot when you were young. Later you got into coke, but stoners don't typically mingle with coke users, do they? Once you graduate to cocaine you're in a different scene.
Carr: I would agree. When I was in high school, I smoked doobies like they were Pall Malls. I went through high school with the parking break on, meaning that it impaired me. In retrospect, high school didn't suck enough. I had to slow it down and stare at it.
In the litany of dumb things, being a chronic user of marijuana during high school seems like the dumbest. I would be terribly disappointed if my kids were stoners. Not that I think pot is super-evil, but when used steadily I think it makes you really stupid.
With cocaine, there's an initial sense of acuity and sharpness. Some people pick that up and set that down as they wish. For other people, that becomes chronic as well and then tips over into mania and addiction.
Dave: Describe tweaking.
Carr: I think of tweaking as more meth-specific, but there's a part in the book where I'm doing what would be called in coke circles "window patrol." You're constantly peering out of cracks in the blind or the door, trying to find those unseen others who will one day come and get you. It's a feeling that you're about to be abducted, either by police or aliens or bad guys.
The truth of the matter is that you sort of feel like that should happen: Someone should come and throw a net over you and make you stop what you're doing. There's kind of a logic driving it. But usually nobody comes.
I've seen people up in trees looking for interlopers, looking for them in garbage cans. It sounds comic, but it's really sad. That's a hell of a way to spend your time. And I didn't just do it for a day or two; I did it for months at a time.
Dave: Why do you think you never got into heroin?
Carr: I was around people who did heroin, and I judged them. I felt what they were doing was skanky and boring.
I understand the pharmacological allure of opiates, but the idea that you're going to cop and listen to Leonard Cohen for eight hours, it's just so boring.
The other thing is that in Minneapolis there was a very legitimate group of people that did cocaine and used it socially. You could kind of hide behind them. Whereas if you were using heroin, that was your primary identity. Some of the better musical acts, in Minneapolis and New York and Portland, some of the tortured guys and girls who wrote those songs would end up tipping over into heroin and not get back.
Dave: Was writing a column about being a single father, holding your parenting up to public scrutiny like that, a way of staying straight?
Carr: I never thought of that.
At the time, I was doing a lot of things for money, and that was one more thing. It had an embedded appeal: single father, twin girls. But what got me started was that my attorney had said, "I would like you to keep journals so we can demonstrate to the judge that you're capable of looking after the girls."
It grew out of that. It became codified.
Oddly enough, being a parent is the one part of life that I feel completely secure in. I feel like I've done a really good job. The leading expert on my children is me and always will be. There's no other part of my life where I feel as competent, as fulfilled, or as happy.
No, they do not hand out Pulitzers for being a parent, and I'm sort of ego-driven, but I've never found anything that compares to the consistent satisfaction. And it's not, for me, a fruit-of-my-loins thing. I never see myself when I look at my children. I see the opposite, so much goodness and so much grace and so much beauty.
I don't know. I just like small people. I like talking to them. They're always saying and doing things that are cool as hell. I have an eleven-year-old right now that is super-quiet, and she'll pop up with stuff that totally freaks me out and blows my mind in a way that many of my contemporaries can't.
Dave: In eighteen months, you were arrested at least nine times. You once left your girls in a freezing car while you copped at a drug dealer's house.
You say the interviews with your daughters were the hardest. Have you talked about the book with them since it was finished? I'm assuming they've read it.
Carr: Just about every major player in the book read it before it went to final edit, as one more effort at efficacy. They were among them. But I don't think there was any news in that book for them. These were all things they knew.
They were absolutely interested in the book as a creative exercise, and they had a lot of feedback. They're both excellent writers, and their takes on the book were very important to me. We had disagreements. Part of the genesis of doing this book, as I write, was reading their college essays, which were very personal and didn't really comport with my version of the story.
When the magazine came out with an excerpt, it was like, "Okay, kids. Buckle up. Your pictures are going to be in front of two million people. Are we ready for this? Are you okay with it?" They couldn't have cared less. Meagan wanted to watch Colbert last night and she had opinions about that, but it's almost as if we're done talking about the book.
Dave: Is the book what you imagined it would be?
Carr: I feel as if I've written a book about somebody else. That's why I wrote it the way I did.
I thought things were one way: I was a nice young man, got mixed up with drugs, had a bad time, sobered up, got a good job, married well, and then lived a life beyond all expectation (except giving drinking a try again). That was my story. Then I reported it out and it was like, No, you were a dangerous, assaultive, narcissistic jerk who objectified women in a way you would never allow to happen to your daughters. So I had to make that adjustment.
In the act of publishing it, now it's morphing again. I want people to think about: Let's see, the dude was addicted to coke, got off the coke, obtained custody of his kids, a single parent, got off welfare, survived cancer, married well... all that stuff, the heroic part of it. But that's not what is resonating with people. It's much more the pathology.
Dave: In the book, your cancer treatment plays a relatively small role, though I'm sure at the time it didn't feel remotely minor.
Carr: I've had a very medicalized life. I didn't want this to be bathed in pathos. After all, I'm sitting here in a really nice house; no one should feel bad for me. My dad always taught me, Don't feel bad for somebody who has a million bucks. I don't have a million bucks, but I have sort of the equivalent.
I didn't feel like belaboring my road of medical trials. I was in the waiting room with so many people who fought the good fight and then died. How are my struggles somehow noble in that context? I sat next to children who were getting full-body radiation. I sat next to people who had metal hoops screwed into their skulls to hold them still.
Hodgkins isn't nothing; it marked me in profound ways. But it didn't kill me.
Dave: You describe cancer as an alien invading. This isn't like the your drug use. It's entirely beyond your control.
Carr: You have to understand the stakes. I'm three years sober. I have four-year-olds. Their mom at the time is not in the picture. I've committed to their mother, to the court, and to my family that I'll look after these kids and make sure they thrive. At that time, there's no natural handoff for those responsibilities.
People were coming and going with "wheatgrass" and "yoga." I thought, I'm sending in a fucking landing party, it's going to be guns blazing in all directions. I need to muscle through. It's not just me.
I said, "Whatever you want to do, I need a good outcome." Once you give doctors permission to save your life, they can go most of the way toward killing you and not feel bad about it. As long as they don't actually kill you.
Dave: You ask in the book, "What if I had not been born in Minnesota, the land of abundant lakes, ample treatment centers, and endless forgiveness?" You credit Minnesota's health care system several times for getting you to the place you are now. And in hindsight, you argue, it was in the state's best interest to help you.
Carr: Let's not forget: white guy with college education, ample family support — my advantages did not begin and end with the state I was born in. I wasn't confronted by trouble but went and found it, and have had every advantage since. I hope the gratitude comes through.
To me, the whole treatment paradigm right now, two weeks of intensive group therapy and then sending you out into the world with a lot of after-care meetings, it really underestimates the tenacity of addiction. I went in the booby hatch for about six months and I didn't even remember who I was for about a month.
If you look at the social costs, never mind the taxes that I've paid since — and I've been an earner all my life — what if my kids were permanent foster care placements, what if I went to federal or state prison, what if my life because of a pattern of addiction was relentlessly medicalized at state expense?
As it was, I was on and off welfare in eight months, and off Medicaid, never took food stamps, and back rolling. That seems good for the culture.
And I defined loser. Prognosis grim. So what are our options? That guy's screwed, the hell with him?
I try not to get all preachy about this, but the embedded message of the book is this whole thing about being hopeless, what constitutes a loser. I am not a loser. I'm not. I've demonstrated that. And I know so many other people that have, as well.
I've never been able to figure out the whole thing around criminalization and legalization of drugs. I don't know what to say because I think that Schedule 1 narcotics should be Schedule 1 narcotics. They're dangerous and kill people and maim people.
I just know that this idea, which is driven by the insurance companies, that there is no such thing as a disease of addiction... what is it then? What would you call it? All the evidence is there. It's a significant medical issue. Really smart people should be trained at minimizing its effect on the culture at large. There are a lot of ways to be an addict or a drunk. My way was not a nice way or a good way, but it's always horrendous for everyone involved.
Dave: Why did you videotape the interviews? Why not just audio?
Carr: There was extreme value in me being able to re-watch those interviews. I don't think some of the emotional content really registered for me when I was doing them because I was trying to find stuff out.
And I'm very much a freak about new media. I see audio as having very low value on the web. It's not searchable, it's not seeable, it's not dynamic, it doesn't attract eyeballs. If I had made this book in the way I wanted, there would be a digital version where the guy is saying, "No, David, you were not a good drug dealer and you never came back with the money," and the reader would hit a button and this guy who looked like a Sioux Indian or a Hell's Angel would start talking to you.
The real estate that books occupy doesn't have to be so narrow. In the fight for mindshare going down the road, I think the installed base of electronic readers, many of which can't accommodate dynamic media but will soon, if not tomorrow then the next day, that's one side of the equation; then the presence of cheap, ubiquitous technology is the other side. And all this means that I'm not the only nonfiction writer who's going to lumber toward his publisher with an external hard drive that's got 40G or 400G of data and say, "What can we do with this?"
I care a lot about things like that, mostly because of my day job. I cover media, and I think the book industry in general is not alert to the possibilities. Part of the reason I'm glad I went with Simon and Schuster, they didn't totally buy into all that rhetoric I just flopped on you but they did fund a really good web site that I think will have some legacy value. Also, they and I together picked up a lot of experience and practice in what this might entail.
I wouldn't be going out and doing another book without some kind of camera on a tripod and the Olympus digital recorder and a digital camera. I would take a lot more digital photos than I did this last time around.
Dave: You mention writing to "Chill-Out Tent" by The Hold Steady. Young love among the overdosed! A great song off a great album.
Carr: That song strikes me most of all because of the storytelling. Something gorgeous and splendid emerging from chaos, that's not a message that's lost on me. And the fact that it has a pharmacological bent, we know how I ended up. But I've never been to the chill-out tent, by the way. For the record.
Craig Finn [chief songwriter and lead singer of The Hold Steady] is a Minneapolis boy, by the way.
Dave: Any interesting stories from Colbert?
Carr: I'm not a person who's concerned about media opportunities because I don't feel like I can be made to look any worse than I already have made myself look in the book. I have no vanity, per se. And I do a lot of video. So being on MSNBC this morning, for instance, no big deal. How bad can it really go? But the Colbert thing flipped me out because it would be a terrible thing to be bad on.
And, oddly enough, he goes to my church. We're not even church friends, but I know his wife a little bit. I thought, I'm going to see this guy again. What if I go on his show and take a crap? It would be so embarrassing.
I've always kept my distance from him because I cover the media. He's come up in coverage before; we shouldn't be buddies. Plus there are asymmetries to that opportunity that there wouldn't be on Charlie Rose, say, or Fresh Air.
And the one other thing about that is that I've done a little comedy and I've written comedy. That is not your friend when you're on that show. The idea that you're going to slip one in on Steven Colbert or take him out, no. There would be nothing but a red mess.
Dave: I've heard from other guests that they tell you to be the straight guy and let him be funny.
Carr: You're told that if you want to get a message across, you have to be willing to be really earnest. I took that at face value because it's the same way with sobriety. You can't sober up ironically.
And that guy's really good at his job. It's not like he needs my help. I went quiet at the right parts, which is a huge victory for me, just to shut up.
David Carr spoke from his New Jersey home on August 6, 2008.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State