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the take

Will David Carr’s ‘The Night of the Gun’ Redeem the Memoir?

Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster; Patrick McMullan

So says the Observer's Leon Neyfakh, who more or less reviews the book in his "Pub Crawl" column today. Carr's memoir of his drug addiction and recovery, which comes out in August from Simon & Schuster, takes a different approach to telling a personal history than most memoirs. Refusing to trust his own memory of events that occurred when he was drunk, high, or drunk and high, Carr re-reports his own story, interviewing friends, family, and acquaintances from his darkest days in Minneapolis. "After years of abuse," Neyfakh writes, "the memoir has found its white knight, galloping in to show how a personal story can be engrossing, shocking and true."

Seriously? Is this media reporter with a weakness for potato metaphors really the savior of the memoir? We're not so sure — and we say this as someone who liked The Night of the Gun.

The Night of the Gun is a compelling book and an impressive journalistic accomplishment. (Full disclosure: We know Carr a little bit, and he's said nice things about Vulture.) Carr is a dogged writer, and there's great reading pleasure to be had in his tireless gnawing at the bone of his past for scraps of truth. For fans of news reporting, it's a good old midwestern smorgasbord — offering a blow-by-blow view of how a story gets ferreted out by a terrific reporter, as well as behind-the-scenes looks at a great city weekly (the late-nineties Washington City Paper, where Carr was editor) and at the corridors of the New York Times (where Carr works now).

But for all its pleasures, The Night of the Gun is not a particularly artful book. It's not meant to be, and is in fact an argument against art — or at least artifice — in the memoir. It's as much about process as it is about story, as Carr picks apart his own history through interview after interview, even questioning himself (as in the section, for example, when he asks himself why he's adding water to the poisoned well of the addiction memoir). And so The Night of the Gun succeeds, as Neyfakh notes, in telling a personal story in a way that assures you quite effectively that it's not full of lies.

But if we're holding David Carr up as the writer who will save the memoir, are we going to demand that his method be followed by every memoirist from now on? What about a writer who — like 99 percent of writers out there — is not as good a reporter as David Carr? What about ones who can't question the figures from their past, because they're dead, or dangerous, or disappeared? Just because a memoir isn't scrupulously accurate doesn't mean it's complete bullshit; there's a vast gulf between David Carr and, say, Margaret B. Jones, and a lot of fucking great books live there. Do we believe every word of The Liars' Club? Not really. Do we wish Mary Karr had written a book about her exhaustive research to get to the bottom of her own childhood? Hell no.

We really like The Year of the Gun. We're glad that it will create another discussion about the role of truth in the memoir. But we hope that it doesn't cause publishers to demand that every memoir come packed in detailed notes about the story's accuracy. In the hands of writers less skilled than David Carr, reporting is nitpicky and boring. (That's why we try not to do it.) And no offense to David Carr, but we love the memoirs best that artfully exploit the uncertainty of memory — not ruthlessly (and admirably) expose it.