Two years ago at SXSW, I was standing watching a midday show by one of my favorite bands of the past few years, Frightened Rabbit. I was on the outskirts of the crowd at Bourbon Rocks, when this lanky, older guy shambled up to me and asked me what band this was. He took out an oblong Ampad and began asking me more questions, taking notes, and sprinkling in his own observations. “Yeah, they do kind of sound like Big Country,” I agreed. I noticed he had a New York Times press badge & his name was David Carr. I turned away for a minute to look him up on my iPhone. As I was reading about how he was a NYT media columnist and had written a book with a black cover and freaky title, the woman with him told me, “That’s David Carr. He’s great.” Carr, meanwhile, was dancing, sans inhibition, to the band. After a song or two, Carr and the woman moved on.
Later that year, I began listening to the NYT Books podcast, and Carr was on a couple of times to discuss books in his parched, kicked-in voice, always with an easygoing wit and good stuff to say. I began reading his Media Decoder column, and I looked more into that scary black book. Then I finally checked out Night of the Gun, subtitled A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own.
And it’s a dark story.
The title comes from an incident fairly well into Carr’s career as an alcoholic and insatiable coke addict. It was St. Patrick’s Day, and he’d gotten laid off from his job as a writer at a Minneapolis newspaper. He went on a binge and ended up in a drug-and-booze-addled argument with a friend. Carr broke into the guy’s apartment, and the guy called the cops and then pulled a gun on him. Or at least Carr thought he did. Years later, when discussing that night, the friend swears it was Carr who had the gun. Carr doesn’t remember even owning a gun, but he realized there was a lot he didn’t remember.
After years of using and recovery and drinking and sobering up, and going through neck cancer, and raising the twin girls he had with his coke dealer wife, Carr reconnects with people from his past and begins work on his rollicking, harrowing, dark, and heartfelt memoir. In approaching his own story, he decides to put his reportage prowess to work; he interviews the people he partied with, went through rehab with, screwed over, and worked with as surprisingly successful journalist (surprising because of his exuberant drug use — not his talent, which is considerable). The result is an account of an inglorious life lived by a man who fully understands the wrongs he committed — including beating up women (he was, in his own words, a “thug”) — but who deeply appreciates the grace that has been bestowed on him by his friends, colleagues, and above all, family.
If you’re like me, you get no small satisfaction reading the stories of people whose lives are worse than yours, whose mistakes are bigger. And while that’s certainly true of Carr to some degree, he’s also overcome tremendous odds (and personal demons) to become a formidable presence in the news media and, from what I can tell, not a bad guy to boot.
This one’s for you, Mr. Carr.
Postscript: While reading Night of the Gun, I tweeted a complimentary note to Carr himself (@carr2n). He retweeted it right away, and soon I had three or four of his followers pinging me that it was indeed a “righteous and compelling” read. One dude, however, was not such a fan.