Half a Life
(McSweeney’s Press, 2010)
Probably every person who has made it into adulthood has some memory of that strange transition between childhood, where action and outcome is largely delimited, and the adult world of often random and tragically permanent consequences.
If we are lucky, this transition does not happen too quickly. Not before adolescence. And if we are still luckier, the first taste of adult consequence is not too terribly bitter. My first real experience of adulthood involved an automobile accident. For my first few months of driving, I was a predictably bad teen driver: I remember making left hand turns into oncoming traffic, driving over curbs, rolling through stop signs. Though I’d been told repeatedly to pay attention and be careful, this was received much the same as parental advice to do well in school, eat better, not stay up too late. When my last-minute braking style finally failed me, I was lucky in a number of ways: I was driving unusually slowly, I was wearing my seat belt, and I was following a friend. My sedan hit his truck, causing shaken nerves and several hundred dollars in repairs, but the only thing that was lastingly broken that day was my sense of invulnerability. I have since become a very careful driver.
Darin Strauss, author of several well-received novels, including Chang and Eng, had no such luck. His first sense of his potential for causing damage came when he was 18: a young bicyclist from his school veered onto the road in front of his car and he killed her. The effect that moment had on the next 20 years of his life is the subject of his memoir out recently from McSweeney’s Press, Half a Life.
Half a Life is saddled with rare subject matter, as memoirs go. Strauss comes from a middle-class upbringing on Long Island, from a nuclear family without major dysfunction. He’s not afflicted by addiction or surviving a debilitating condition. In this story he is not the nobly suffering victim or the penitent rogue. And this is what makes the book most harrowing: because the reader cannot be comforted by Strauss’s resolve in the face of adversity, nor can he read Half a Life as a cautionary tale of redemption. The police and judicial system make clear that Strauss was not driving recklessly. He wasn’t speeding, or drunk. His hands were on the wheel. He could not have acted differently. But he is still squarely to blame for the death of Celine Zilke. The terror and unfairness of this are difficult to resolve, because despite Strauss’s inner turmoil, his guilt, and self-recrimination, it’s clear that there’s nothing he could have done. This bears stress because so many memoirs give readers an out. I am not an addict. I am not a survivor of an accident, or a disease, or a terrible family. This story could not be about me. But what brought Strauss to the beginning of his story is simply that he was a driver, and an adolescent one at that, which is something that almost all of us are or have been.
One odd quirk of Half a Life, given its subject matter, is that the book itself is so beautiful. McSweeney’s is a boutique press in the best sense of that term, and everything they publish works to be an object of art as much as a document. Half a Life, with its witty half-sized dust cover, is no exception. It is impeccably designed in a beautiful cloth-bound hardcover with obvious care spent on paper and binding. It’s lovely to hold, and to read. In addition, Strauss is a fine writer, and he handles everything from physical description (“birdnesty hair”) to literary allusions with a tossed-off grace. An Amy Hempel short story is referred to without pretension and also manages to be profound. Strauss tells his tale with an unsparing insight, easily placing the reader in his shoes as an 18-year-old desperately failing to comprehend the enormity of his classmate’s death and his own culpability, and then later as a 25-year-old trying to live while coming to terms with his guilt, and finally as a middle-aged adult, a man who understands both the largeness and the smallness of a lost life.
But in the end, what makes the book worthwhile is Strauss’s careful accounting of his own emotional state in the long aftermath. What makes the book’s pages fly through the fingers is Strauss’s eloquent depiction of a particularly ordinary kid suddenly facing the fact that he’d done something both permanent and horrible. The person the reader sees in this unflinching depiction is not a monster, nor is he a victim. Instead, he’s someone much rarer in literature, and much harder to dismiss: a human being.