Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The way of the gun

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David Carr

Like many readers, I first encountered David Carr through his longtime work as The Carpetbagger, in which he brilliantly covered the annual insanity of the movie awards season for the New York Times. Show business reportage, like media journalism in general, is a funny thing: by definition, all reporters are members of the media, and there’s a tendency among writers, myself included, to think we can write in an informed way about the entertainment industry just because we happen to have a blog. As a result, there’s an endless supply of this sort of coverage, especially around Oscar time, and most of it is pretty superficial. Yet it’s all still oddly readable: I’m more likely to scroll through a shoddily written piece on Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne’s prospects for Best Actor than, say, an article on tort reform, just because the subject matter lends itself to painless, disposable consumption. What made Carr so extraordinary is that he took a beat that was inherently forgiving, at least when it came to momentarily sustaining a reader’s attention, and made it so smart and memorable that you had to take notice. His name quickly became one of five or so bylines in the Times that I was happy to see whenever it appeared, and I was sorry when he stepped back from awards coverage a few years ago to focus on other subjects.

Yet he never went away, and it was only after his sudden death yesterday that I and so many others realized how subtly he had become a part of our lives. The day he died, I’d read no fewer than two of his pieces—one on Brian Williams, the other contrasting the unexpected departures of Williams and Jon Stewart—and there’s no question that I clicked on them mostly because of his name. Just the day before, I was scrolling through some notes I’d made on his excellent memoir The Night of the Gun, which I’d read while doing research on addiction for an ongoing writing project, and only last week, my wife and I were laughing over an anecdote about Bob Odenkirk’s recent visit to Chicago:

“Do you have The Night of the Gun by David Carr in paperback?” Odenkirk asks the woman behind the counter at Powell’s Books on South Halsted Street…Nope, just hardcover, says the smiling employee, who may or may not recognize him. “Nah, forget it,” says Odenkirk, who’s considering adapting Carr’s addiction memoir as a screenplay. “I don’t wanna lug that thing around.”

“And so the movie was never made,” I joked. But I hope it will be. I’ve read a lot of books on addiction, but Carr’s is by far the best, and its emphasis on the verification of even his most personal memories makes it a model not just for similar accounts, but for autographical writing of any kind.

The Night of the Gun by David Carr

The Night of the Gun makes most other addiction memoirs seem lazy, just as Carr’s writing on the media made you realize how forgettable much of this kind of work could be, but that’s what he did for a living. Any consideration of his legacy has to begin with the apparent contradiction between his life story, which his book relates in grueling detail, and his beat, which saw him cranking out a few hundred words at a time on gossip from the red carpet or selfie sticks. Yet both were a matter of talent elevating the material when lesser writers would be content to coast. Addiction memoirs are like media coverage in at least one way: there’s an element of voyeurism to both that make the result more interesting than might have been honestly earned. Carr wasn’t the type to settle for that, and you couldn’t read his articles without reflecting that maybe, just maybe, the media deserved to be written about by someone who had seen and experienced more than what he’d seen in movies and on television. He kept the two sides of his writing life separate, but both emerged from the same restless curiosity, and we all felt it. Carr was never exactly a celebrity journalist, but his name was a sign of quality that most of the more famous players he covered would have had reason to envy.

And what really set him apart was the fact that he never regarded substance abuse as a form of life experience or legitimacy, as so many other authors of addiction memoirs—especially those of a younger generation—implicitly do. Addiction didn’t make him a good journalist; if anything, being a good journalist was what allowed him to describe his own addiction so honestly, and to lay out its logic in ways that I’ll never forget. (He’s particularly good in describing how drugs offer a form of structure to those who crave it, leading to a life that is remarkably organized, or in contrasting the “pickling effect” of heroin, which renders its users passive and harmless, to the “ripping and running” of cocaine, which tends to leave scars. It’s also a very funny book: by his own account, Carr wrote a lot of it while listening to The Magnetic Fields, and he and Stephin Merritt share a gift for the ironic understatement of tragedy.) Carr collapsed suddenly at the office last night, and while it’s tempting to romanticize this a little, as if all working journalists secretly wish to die in harness, I have no doubt that he would have said that he’d prefer to be with his family. He leaves behind one excellent book, a body of great work written on deadline, and a sense that there was a lot left that he had to say. And I’ll miss him.

Written by nevalalee

February 13, 2015 at 10:02 am

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