I’ve made a start on the reading list for the Memoir Workshop, and the first book I read was The Night of the Gun by David Carr.
David Carr is a reporter for the New York Times. He is also a recovered alcoholic and cocaine user. I have had a very ambivalent reaction to the book. When I first began it I wondered how I was going to get through it because he spares no details – or himself – and the sleazy life he describes is revolting. But, by about a third of the way into the book it became a real page-turner for me. His writing style is very immediate and conversational so it’s easy enough to read even when the subject matter is difficult. He has a very direct voice and by the end of the book I felt as if I knew him. Also, his approach to the book (his first) was fascinating because he treated it as a case of diligent reportage. He went back over his tracks (no pun intended) to interview people he had known and hurt along the way. He also dug up documentation about arrests, hospital records and treatment facilities, and printed those in the book, along with selected photographs. His attempt to be brutally honest – no holds barred – is striking, as are his ruminations about memory; how we remember selectively and edit our memories to make them palatable for the lives we want to live.
Because of his technique of interviewing people to fill in the gaps and give an objective perspective on his early life, the same ground is covered from different points of view. And running through it all is the thread of redemption as he hints at how he was able to turn his life around. That builds the urgency to read further to see how he managed to achieve that, and is very effective in that way. Three pivotal moments stand out sharply for me: how the mother of his twins was actually using cocaine when she went into labor; Carr’s epiphany when he left the infant twins in the car on a freezing winter night as he went in search of cocaine; how, after his recovery, he saw how ferociously starving the girls were and decided not to take them back to their mother, but went on to become a single parent to them.
Some of my ambivalence about the book, after I had got over my initial revulsion to the subject matter, was how David Carr wrote about the mother of his children. A warts-and-all account of one’s own life is one thing but I question the ethics of slagging off someone else in one’s memoir. This seems particularly questionable to me since his children were more than likely going to be reading this book, and the unsavory aspects of their mother’s life are not necessarily something they would need to hear like this. I’m not at all sure that a memoir is the place to settle personal scores.
That said, one of the great values of the book is the insight it gives into addiction, and David Carr’s belief that it is a disease. For those of us fortunate enough not to have addictive personalities, it is all too easy to be judgmental. When it is so patently clear that drugs and alcohol mess up people’s lives, it seems inconceivable that anyone would knowingly enter into it. We watch someone like Robert Downey Jr. going in and out of rehab and relapses with frustration and a kind of “snap out of it” mentality. This book is salutary in how it describes what it is like to be in the grip of addiction. It has certainly given me a different, more empathetic perspective.
On page 303 David Carr’s boss at The New York Times is talking to him about the book:
“You know that part about where you dust yourself off and take over the world?” he asked. I said, yeah.
“That shit is sooo boooooooring. Nobody wants to read about that.”
It made me wonder about the approach to memoir. Does it have to be some brutal story like the addiction in The Night of the Gun or the poverty in Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes, or something heart-rending like Joan Didion’s account of grieving in The Year of Magical Thinking? The fracas over A Million Little Pieces, when everyone was taken in by James Frey’s account of his own supposed problems of addiction, seems to indicate a voyeuristic curiosity about people’s miserable stories. I hope this is not the case, since memoir is something that interests me! My hope is that if I write a love story about America people will want to read that too.