by Darin Strauss
204 pages, McSweeney's
Review by Maria Bustillos
The sad title of Darin Strauss’s memoir Half a Life refers firstly to the fact that at age thirty-six he began writing about the accident he’d been in at age eighteen. Strauss was driving a car that killed a schoolmate on her bicycle; she simply swerved into the road right in front of his car; no one ever learned why. Secondly, it refers to the strange blightedness of his life since that day.
It appears on the surface that Mr. Strauss put his life back together after the accident reasonably quickly and well. He was just a kid, after all, just graduated from high school; you can feel the adults around him “focusing on the positive” and wishfully thinking, “young people have marvelous powers of recuperation.” He went to college just a few weeks later, went to grad school, fell in love: “made a life for himself.”
But the truth turns out to be just what you feared when you first learn what happened to the author as a boy: scarcely a moment passed in his life that wasn’t affected by memories of the accident, or by the awful fallout from it. He describes very vividly and accurately the helplessness and horror all around him; the victim’s parents, particularly, are like people living in a bomb crater. You might have seen this if you’ve ever known people forced to deal with the disaster of a child’s death; people come round with their mannerly shock and grief but then “life goes on”; nobody will be living in the crater with them.
Since he’d survived apparently unharmed, Strauss seems to have felt he had no right to any pain or grief of his own. He never let himself off the hook for one iota of his own self-pity, egotism or cowardice, as if only the constant exercise of the most vigilant, unforgiving conscience could atone for his having been the cause, however blameless or unwilling, of someone else’s death. So the book is largely a document about this gentle kid failing, obviously failing for years and years, to come to grips with something so terrible that it would tinge every moment that remained. When the secret guilt and pain would let up even a little, would fail to tinge, if things seemed to be going well or if they got a little easier for him, then his conscience would step in to freshen the stain.
This tendency to push self-reflection to the point of self-flagellation is curiously common in our contemporary writers, particularly the guilt-prone white male ones. In the case of Half a Life, the author displays fidelity to both these contemporary notions of brutal honesty, and to his own harsh self-judgment. In order to feel halfway worthy to himself, every minute weakness of character has to come under the klieg lights of principled scrutiny. The impulse that drives this tendency is manifestly natural, unfeigned, unflinching. Still, though, I couldn’t help recalling Nietzsche’s remark, “The man who despises himself still respects himself as he who despises.” Maybe there is a better way to deal with this kind of sorrow, I could not help wishing. Should our first responsibility be to despise ourselves? So much energy goes into all this self-criticism, self-loathing even. But how to restore half a life to a full one?
Strauss’s writing is spare and workmanlike, free of flourishes. His book might come off as self-involved, if it weren’t so raw and open. His rigorous, absolute candor pre-empts any possible accusation of vanity. I found this story so gripping and so touching that I read the book in a single afternoon; I was very much moved by it. Giving books to people in crisis can be an awkward business, but I believe this one could be very helpful to someone who is grieving.
The terror of death that we are all of us keeping at bay is in ordinary circumstances kept well hidden from American adults, let alone teenagers. Anyone who’s ever spent much time in a hospital or looked after someone very ill or dying knows the impenetrability of the wall between “ordinary circumstances” and real ones. The saddest thing among the many sad things about Half a Life is the clear depiction of our culture’s total inability to deal with the implacability of nature, particularly regarding accidental death, and more particularly the death of a child.
In the end, there’s nothing else for Darin Strauss to do but tell the story. And nothing else for us to do but listen, in the hope that that might amount to at least a partial shouldering of the author’s burden, which is to say, everyone’s burden.