There was a time when the memoir was a rare and valuable literary commodity. Writing a memoir required the personal observation powers of an essayist with the nuance and literary stamina of a novelist. Today, memoirs are the reality TV of the publishing world; they require only that you reveal personal, embarrassing and pathetic things — real or imagined (James Frey anyone?) — to the world.
After reading David Carr’s “Night of the Gun,” which chronicles his years as a drug addict and petty dealer, you have to wonder why the world needs another memoir by a one-time addict looking back back back to his inwardly glorified days on the mean streets of addiction.
Carr is a good writer. Well, he has a skill for stringing words together spiced up with a sardonic, tough-love tone. However, for all of the Raymond Chandler bravura of his prose, his writing at times comes off as empty and soulless as those early wasted years of which he is so proudly ashamed.
It is this pride thing that rings hallow in this memoir. The author flagellates himself with all the rigor of a medieval penitent, but like the penitent, he reveals a certain smugness in telling us how bad he had it. He was no small-time junkie, dammit. He was the real thing. He has street cred. You don’t know how bad he had it.
He doesn’t want to talk about those miserable times, mind you, but his readers, dammit, they will demand it of him — they “will want to scan past the tick-tock, looking for the yucky part so that they can feel better about themselves.”
So Carr graciously indulges with an entire book of his bona fides. Here’s a taste:
“When I got to detox for what I thought was the last time, they took one look at my arms and brought me a tub filled with lukewarm water and Dreft detergent to soak my scabrous, puss-filled track marks. They dropped pills into my mouth from several inches away as if feeding a baby bird, and even the wet-brain drunks wouldn’t come near me. See how that works?”
Even when we want him to shut up, he keeps on, like a kid pulling at his father’s coat sleeve. “My duplicity around woman was towering and chronic,” he immodestly tells us. “I conned and manipulated myself into their beds and then treated them as human jewelry, something to be worn for effect.”
Wow, drug addict and playa.
As a reporter and a former employee at the DEA, I’ve talked with a number of junkies. They all have the same pretentious habit of telling you just how bad they had it back in the day. They never tire of telling you that they once were lost before being found and, by god, nobody was a bigger badder sinner than they were.
The parts of Carr’s book that are alive with genuine reflection are those where the author looks to his children. He attributes his salvation to them, to the moment he realized that his decisions were not only destroying his life but also the lives of innocents as well. Then he shuts his eyes, daring not look too deeply into the lifelong damage he will have inflicted. Unfortunately, his narrative always eventually comes back to his own amazing transformation from a fat doper (his description) to a fashion-thin and highly successful New York literati (mine).
“Junkies and drunks frequently end up putting a megaphone to their own pratfalls in the form of memoir because they need to believe that all of the time they spent with the lips wrapped around glass, whether it was a bottle of vodka or a crack pipe, actually meant something,” he notes in his book filled with self-redemptive pratfalls. “That impulse suggests that I don’t regret the past — it brought me to this nice, happy place — but I’d also like to squeeze something more from it … I realized that I had achieved a measure of integration, not just between That Guy and This Guy but between my past and my present … You are always told to recover for yourself, but reproduction has an enormously simplifying effect on life: Are you willing to destroy others, including little babies, in order to feed the monster within?”
Carr’s book is worth the price of admission for the insight he provides in the quotation above: Are you willing to destroy others, including little babies, in order to feed the monster within?
Folks who want to ruin their lives have the right to do so, I guess. More of us have probably come closer than we’d like to admit. But we don’t have the right to ruin the lives of others — especially children, who aren’t given the chance to make their own decisions in life and must suffer the awful choices made by others.
Carr resolves his past by asserting that it made him a more complete man. Good for him. But what of his children? Perhaps they would have chosen a route with fewer scars, less fear. But they were never given the choice to participate in his dubious journey into “wholeness.” They were simply dragged along and must bear the scars he inflicted.
And that’s what the Legalization Lobby — comprised of those who want to legalize drugs in America — fails to understand. And it’s what Carr’s book touches ever so gingerly: There are others, others who didn’t ask for your misery, who get hurt.
There are too many cases of “junkies” who smoke crack and shoot meth while their infants lie dehydrated on the kitchen floor, unable to catch the attention of their stoned parents. Of children burned to the bone from spilled meth chemicals while their parents look on obliviously, lost in a haze of dope.
These folks prefer to be called Junkies. It makes them feel better about themselves. It’s not all their fault. It’s society’s fault. It’s the drug’s fault. It’s their parents’ fault. It’s anybody’s fault except their own, the ones who made the choice to stick needles into their arms.
I’m less interested in books like Carr’s that tout how bad he had it, how face down in the gutter he was before he pulled himself out of the muck, bloody fingernail by bloody fingernail. There are too many kids out there who think they can tough it out too. But can’t. We don’t hear their stories because they’re still out there, lost. We don’t hear the stories from the two-year-old little girls left baking in the choking heat of a car with the windows rolled up, abandoned and forgotten, while Mom’s unconscious inside. What choices would they have made if given the chance? We’ll never know.