The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Monday, August 17, 2009
The Night of the Gun: A reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. His own.
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
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Viagra: the New Cycling Performance Drug?
A cyclingnews.com report titled "Riders using Viagra for altitude?" examines medical research about the little blue pill's effect on cycling performance in the mountains.
This reminds me of the controversy surrounding hypoxic tents, which simulate the low-oxygen environment of high altitude. This encourages the body to create more red blood cells, improving aerobic capacity and endurance. Two years ago, the World Anti-Doping Agency considered banning such tents because they achieve results similar to blood doping.
Now there is another way to improve cycling performance by pitching a tent.
Friday, May 02, 2008
The Government Is Experimenting On Me
I've been gassed:
Calling it the most effective tool to date in the War on Terror, the Pentagon announced Monday that it had developed a new chemical weapon called "ennui gas," a nerve agent that overwhelms its victims with sudden philosophical distress over the meaningless tedium of human life and a sinking sense that everything they have ever accomplished ultimately amounts to dust... Symptoms include uncontrollable sighing, repeated utterances of the phrase "What's the use?" a confusion and bitterness regarding one's place in the universe, and an increased proclivity to listen to Lou Reed records.At least now I have an excuse. And I do have a lot of Lou Reed* records.
* Speaking of Lou, no one told me he got hitched again last month.
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Book Reviews: Twinkies and Meth
Twinkies and meth, the breakfast of champions!
- Twinkie, Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger -- This is a fascinating look at the modern world of food manufacturing. The author works his way through a Twinkie's ingredients list, visiting processing plants all over the U.S. -- sometimes under high security -- to see how each is created. I learned a lot from this book, and I was particularly surprised that some nasty petroleum products such as naphtha and benzene are involved in food production. Ettlinger explains how food scientists use chemicals to overcome the shortcomings and inconsistencies of traditional baking ingredients; a homemade Twinkie would have little in common with the Hostess variety. Most baked goods contain the same ingredients, so the book is not solely for Twinkie aficionados. To my relief, the author remains objective throughout rather than ranting about "fake" foods as is the fashion.
- No Speed Limit: The Highs and Lows of Meth by Frank Owen -- I usually provide my family with a list of books I want for Christmas, but I decided I'd rather buy this myself than field questions about why I was so interested in crystal meth. Owen tells the history of meth, discusses its influence on certain subcultures, and considers whether it is truly the demonic drug that media hype makes it out to be (in a word, no -- despite the scare campaigns, it's not any more addictive or difficult to quit than other hard drugs). Most people don't know that amphetamine and methamphetamine were provided to soldiers on both sides during World War II, and many are too young to remember that they were commonly available in pill form in the U.S. fifty years ago (over 3.5 billion pills were manufactured in 1958, enough to give 20 doses to every American!). The author describes several methods of producing meth (he does not provide recipes) and how the market changed as these methods were perfected. He visits the infamous Uncle Fester, who figured out how to make meth as a Marquette chemistry student and wrote a book about it while in prison. Owen even "takes one for the team" by using the drug and describing its effects. No Speed Limit takes a restrained, unhysterical look at the "meth epidemic." It includes an extensive bibliography but unfortunately lacks an index.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
A New Perspective on "Pro-Life"
This morning I took the car in for service at Napleton's Northwestern Ford in Rogers Park (RIP Bert Weinman Ford; I still miss you, especially your convenient location). Since I had at least 90 minutes to kill, I went out for breakfast.
There was a couple seated across the aisle from me, and although I was reading an interesting book, I couldn't help eavesdropping. The woman was upset because she had given a guy (it wasn't clear whether he was a relative or a good friend) some money to get the brakes fixed on his car. "He spent it on drugs," she said.
Later, she was talking about the same guy (I think). She said, "When I talked to him, I thought he was okay. He was talking pro-life. He wasn't talking pro-crackhead." Apparently, in some American subcultures, "pro-life" has nothing to do with abortion. It's about keeping oneself clean and staying alive.
Sunday, May 07, 2006
Lyrics of the Day
I'm listening to a Warren Zevon concert from 1982 today, and it includes "Charlie's Medicine," one of my favorite "forgotten" songs -- one that never shows up on the greatest hits compilations. It's from The Envoy, a good album that wasn't particularly popular. In fact, it just became available on CD last week, and even then only as an import. I bought it used on vinyl years ago for $5. It isn't Zevon's best, but it's worth having. "Charlie's Medicine" is about a prescription drug dealer who gets shot by a doctor. I haven't heard about its veracity, but it could easily be a true story. I love the chorus for its wordplay and how the singer expresses regret while admitting complicity in Charlie's dangerous occupation:
Charlie had to take his medicineLike many rock stars, Zevon had his share of substance abuse problems. It's rather ironic that plain old tobacco killed him.
Charlie got his prescription filled
I came to say goodbye
I'm sorry Charlie died
I came to finish paying my bill
Last Christmas, I bought my brother a Zevon compilation called Genius that he absolutely loves. It doesn't include "Charlie's Medicine," but it's a good place to start your Zevon collection. By the way, his son Jordan has generously permitted Archive.org to freely share his live recordings via FTP and bit torrent (66 performances so far). That is a great move on Jordan's part -- a way to help his father's songs live forever.
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
Maybe He Shouldn't Have Appealed
Whenever a pro cyclist gets caught with an illegal substance in his blood or urine, he or she inevitably appeals the charge and/or sentence. Fighting it is pretty much the only way a rider can maintain innocence or feign integrity -- if you don't appeal, you may as well brand "doper" on your forehead. The only other strategy I've seen is virginal contrition: "I'm so sorry I did it, this was the first and only time I ever used drugs, why was I so stupid?" Of course, the cynics among us translate that as "I'm so sorry I got caught, this was the first and only time I ever got caught using drugs, why was I so stupid to get caught?"
Sometimes appeals are successful. Anomalies are found in testing procedures, false positives are identified, lapses in protocol occur, etc. As for sentencing, sometimes a cyclist can get his suspension reduced or at least changed to start the day after he stopped racing rather than the day he was found guilty. This was the case with David Millar, who may race the Tour de France this year thanks to his sentence being applied retroactively (he also tried to get his sentence reduced but failed).
Anyway, the appeal strategy backfired terribly this week for Danilo Hondo. He was hoping for an acquittal because although he tested positive for the stimulant Carphedon, there supposedly wasn't enough present to provide any performance gain. Alas, the Court of Arbitration for Sport instead determined that Hondo had been under-sentenced with a one-year suspension when he should have been suspended for two years. In addition to the two-year suspension, Hondo cannot race in the Pro Tour (the top level of pro cycling) for another two years. Oops. Hondo had hoped to return to his Gerolsteiner team in April, but now he may not be back at all.
Monday, September 20, 2004
Fines For Marijuana
This is the best idea I've heard in a long time. A Chicago police sergeant has suggested that the city should ticket people for possessing small amounts of marijuana rather than arresting them:
Sgt. Tom Donegan said he has long been fed up with making arrests for possession of small amounts of the drug, only to see judges later drop the charges. He said that court records from last year indicate that 94 percent of the 6,954 Chicago cases involving marijuana amounts smaller than 2.5 grams were dismissed, as were 81 percent of the cases involving from 2.5 to 10 grams. Donegan said assessing fines of $250 for possession of 10 grams or less would have raised $5 million for the city's coffers in 2003.This proposition was announced the same day that City Hall suggested raising taxes on gasoline and natural gas. The problem with a gasoline tax is that people leave the city to buy gas (the city already charges an extra five cents). As for natural gas, since most Chicagoans heat their homes with it, an added tax there would be like a back-door real estate tax increase. The marijuana proposal is a better alternative. Not only would it increase city revenue (and cut the expense of paying police to go to court for cases that are thrown out), but it would take a burden off the courts, too, to the tune of 27-28 cases a day (6,954 cases divided by 250 weekdays). One addition I would suggest to prevent this from being abused by those who can afford the fines is a limit similar to speeding tickets: after a certain number of tickets, the offender should be arrested. Theoretically, a judge would be less likely to throw out a case knowing that the offender has violated the law several times to even end up in court.
Of course, as someone who uses lots of natural gas, some gasoline, and no marijuana, I could be biased. The city would never approve of it anyway. I predict that this is the first and last we will ever hear of this proposal.
I guess I was wrong. The Sun-Times has a front page story today about Mayor Daley's support for "pot tickets."
Friday, September 17, 2004
Meth: The Secret To A Productive Economy
The Tribune had an article from the L.A. Times: "Once a party drug, meth moves into the workplace." Apparently, while I was using sleep deprivation to cope with my job, others switched from cocaine and No-Doz to meth.
Here's an interesting tidbit: "It is popular with workers in overachieving, highly productive economies such as those in Japan and South Korea." It sounds like Bush should be promoting meth labs to jump start the economy!
#1 B.S. statistic in this story: "Although there are no government or private statistics on meth use in the workplace, a major national survey in 2002 found that an estimated 77% of people who use drugs of any type are employed." This is so meaningless that I am disgusted that an editor let this eat up a column-inch of newsprint, even with the disclaimer in front. I guess I'm glad to hear that only 23% of drug users rely on mugging people like me to support their habits, but it has nothing to do with whether people use the stuff at work. That's like saying, "We don't know how many people work in their homes, but 77% of homeowners are employed."
Wal-Mart sponsored a study in their home county in Arkansas that found that "meth use cost area employers $21 million last year — about $42,000 per affected worker — in higher absenteeism and health costs." Maybe if Wal-Mart paid their employees more, they would be able to buy better drugs that didn't cause as many problems. Or maybe those employees wouldn't feel that their lives were so miserable that they needed drugs to escape them.
I do not mean to make light of the meth problem. Unlike other drugs, this one has hit even small town America pretty hard, and illicit meth labs have caused who-knows-how-many explosions, sometimes in apartment buildings with lots of innocent victims. It has become established enough in our culture over the last decade to pop up in songs by Bruce Springsteen and James McMurtry (three times on one album!), among others. On the other hand, it is hard to read an article like this, then look around the office and imagine a bunch of my co-workers speeding on meth.