After I reviewed News Junkie by Jason Leopold, Chris went looking for it at Barnes & Noble. When he got home, he e-mailed me to say that he had purchased the wrong book, The Night of the Gun by David Carr. Who would have thought "junkie journalist memoir" was such a popular genre?
Chris suggested that I compare the two. Although I had plenty of other books to read, I replied, "Maybe I'll check out The Night of the Gun when it hits the bargain shelves." Eleven days later, I found a single hardcover copy for $6 at a Waldenbooks.
Addiction/recovery memoirs are pretty common, and they seem to follow a pattern: share titillating tales of "the Life" including drugs, sex, and crime to pique the interest of the white-bread masses (myself included); hit bottom and go into rehab (this part of the story often repeats); become a clean model citizen for some stretch of time; inexplicably relapse (in Carr's case, with booze rather than cocaine); repeat the recovery process; and swear it's not going to happen ever again. The most striking difference between the two books is how the authors approach their stories. Leopold's book is a traditional, confessional memoir while Carr reports on his life by interviewing people from/about his past, acquiring police and medical records, etc. In addition to the main addiction/recovery plot, Leopold's story is bolstered by his involvement in breaking the Enron story while Carr's memoir adds the challenges of battling cancer and raising twins as a single father.
The more cynical think Carr treats his life like a newspaper story in the wake of challenges to the veracity of James Frey's recovery tale, but the reason he gives is that his own memories too often run contrary to those of others. Carr discovers that many events, even some of the most pivotal in his life, may not have happened as he recalls. The discrepancies are not minor like "what color shirt I was wearing" either -- the book's title refers to an event in which Carr and his friend have different memories of who was pointing a gun at whom.
Unfortunately, it doesn't take long before the gimmick gets in the way of telling the story. Carr bounces back and forth between his past and his current information-gathering process. Sometimes he even rearranges the main story for the convenience of describing his interviews, which strikes me as the opposite of how a book should be written. Carr should have merely incorporated information gleaned from the interviews into the main story rather than making so many chapters into "where are they now?" episodes (while Carr may care how his junkie friends turned out years later, most readers probably won't).
Like most junkies who survive the Life, Carr is extremely lucky. He's lucky he didn't overdose (his coke addiction progressed from snorting to smoking to injecting), he's lucky he didn't kill anyone, and he's very lucky to have had the support of family and friends who helped him hold his life together.
Carr's use of only first names is annoying. I understand that he wants to protect the privacy of friends and fellow addicts, but when he refers to a Minnesota Vikings quarterback named Tommy and a story-fabricating New York Times reporter named Jayson when their last names are easily Googled, it's unnecessary and irritating (not to mention oddly un-journalistic).
Like this review, The Night of the Gun is too long, and Carr's style interrupts his story too much. The reporting approach puts some distance between author and events, which doesn't come across well in a memoir -- it's like watching life instead of living it. Any memoir is narcissistic at some level (which Carr acknowledges), but in this case I think he really wrote the book more for himself than for readers. Although Carr has posted videos of interviews and other material online, I cannot imagine anyone finishing this lengthy book and yearning to know even more about his ugly past.
Back to comparing the two junkie journalists, while I find Carr's approach interesting in concept, Leopold's book is more readable, more engaging, and more enjoyable. But after reading the addiction stories of two journalists and a rock star this summer, I am burned out on addiction/recovery memoirs. Too much drama, too much depressing shit, too many people hurt by addicts being assholes. This is dreary stuff, and I feel like a rubbernecking motorist passing a horrific accident when I read it.
Current tally: 65 books finished, 61 books acquired