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What Do Crack Cocaine and Journalism Have in Common?

On David Carr on David Carr

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For this portrait, Carr laid on the floor in the dark. The artist used a flashlight as a paintbrush while the film was exposed for eight minutes.   

David Carr has always had a knack for collecting pals and devotees—at his 30th-birthday party in Minneapolis, more than 100 people surprised him wearing T-shirts saying I AM A CLOSE PERSONAL FRIEND OF DAVID CARR—but there’s still no denying the guy takes some getting used to. For a brief while, David worked at New York Magazine, and while I eventually became one of the legions who adored him, the first twenty minutes of our first social encounter were excruciating. David seems to have blind spots directly in front of him—he doesn’t quite see you when he talks—and during that first lunch, we couldn’t figure out a way to connect, with each beat in our dialogue stretching so long it felt like we were stuck on a bad overseas phone line. Eventually, he decided to change tack. “So,” he said. “The reason I have twins is because I knocked up my crack dealer.” Hello. He then explained he’d developed a passion for coke in his twenties and thirties and that he’d gone so far down the loonytown expressway he’d wound up in more than a few jails, spent more than a few unsuccessful stints in rehab, and slept with Lord knows how many high-haired women of disrepute. Also, he said, he got cancer. I don’t think our entrées had even arrived.

Because David has always been an open book, a real one seemed inevitable. Before he wrote his new memoir, The Night of the Gun, out on bookshelves this week (The New York Times Magazine ran an excerpt two weeks ago), his lunatic past was a staple of his narrative repertoire, a part of himself that he seemed to love as much as revile. And the fact that he’d been a crack addict made a strange kind of sense. It explained the penumbra of controlled chaos around him, the weirdness and charm and swagger and energetic pursuit of fun. What wasn’t immediately apparent was the ugliness of his old life. In some distant way, his friends and closer colleagues all knew that David hung out with fellows named Bongo and Tony the Hat, and maybe even that he shot coke into the veins of his hand. But this? While David’s girlfriend was pregnant, he writes in The Night of the Gun, “both of us were chronically, psychotically high.” He shortly adds, “She was in the habit of slamming doors in my face—I called her ‘Bam Bam’ in part because of that—and I was in the habit of coming right through those doors and choking her.” He hit bottom when he was home alone one night with the twins, craving crack so badly that he drove them to a dopehouse, left them in the car, and emerged hours later. It’d gotten so cold he could see their breath.

By now, most of us have read about the novel conceit of The Night of the Gun: David went to Best Buy, bought $800 of recording equipment, and filled it with 40 gigs of documents and testimony in order to figure out what had happened in those smeary drug years. By using the tools of journalism, he not only inoculated himself from allegations that he might be lying, as James Frey so crudely did in A Million Little Pieces, but turned the project into something that perfectly suits his sensibility. David has always approached truth-telling as an extreme sport. He speaks in confessions and cudgels. If his female friends whinge too long about unworthy men in their lives, he cuts them off: “So why are you pulling down your panties for him?” If a friend doesn’t shut up, he tells him to “quit filibustering.” Once, when I visited David in the hospital, he told me he loved asking doctors if they were disoriented when they opened him up—he’s missing a spleen, a pancreas, and half a gallbladder, the by-product of Hodgkin lymphoma and its assorted complications—and they scored big points if they said yes. (David added he’d given my flowers to some sad-sack character down the hall who needed them more. You what?)

Yet David, whose name became synonymous with candor for so many of us, still wasn’t telling us everything. “Even the things I was aware of and did know I found surprising to read,” says Seth Mnookin, the Vanity Fair writer and friend of David’s who has written about his own struggle with addiction. “It’s very difficult and extremely rare for people to be that honest when they’re putting something out publicly.

It was his behavior toward women that stunned me. The Night of the Gun contains calm, graphic depictions of how he hit a girlfriend named Doolie—when he shows up to interview her for the book, she walks him through a reenactment—and it catalogues a variety of bad behaviors toward her and others. “My duplicity around women was towering and chronic,” he writes. “I conned and manipulated myself into their beds and then treated them like human jewelry, something to be worn for effect.” And that’s just the stuff he considered publishable. When I recently asked him what spools of confession were sitting on the cutting-room floor, he didn’t hesitate. “I was very busy with women. Probably pathologically so.”


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