An underlying preoccupation with nonfiction propelled Darin Strauss’s first two novels Chang and Eng and The Real McCoy, one chronicling the lives of real-life conjoined twins, the other that of a famed boxer. Now the caper’s up with a new memoir titled Half a Life detailing his involvement in the death of a high school classmate and, more importantly, the psychological aftermath. If this sounds like another glossy tissue box of memories from the woe-is-me memoir phylum, well, it only half is.
Beginning with the admission (not to mention the most syntactically original sentence of the book) "Half my life ago, I killed a girl," Strauss describes how, when he was an 18-year-old high school student, the car he was driving and the bicycle a classmate was riding converged on a Long Island road. He is quick to admit, "What I do remember is self-centered," recounting teenage fears of condemnation and detailing his theatrical mimicry of gestures accumulated from television and film. For the rest of the book, Strauss negotiates the chasm between how he should feel and act and how he does, vacillating between shame and a precarious sense of nonculpability. Beyond his own shame, Strauss grapples with adults whose reactions sometimes border on downright odious. Take Strauss’s shrink, who urges him to purge guilt by driving back to the scene of the accident only days later with a tasteless lure —"How about if I told you we’re going to go in my Porsche?" — skipping Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance in exchange for showing the young Strauss the slickness with which his ride revs from zero to sixty. Then there are the parents of the deceased bicyclist, who tell him, in words strangely akin to those addressed towards pregnant women, that he must excel because he carries the responsibility of "living for two," then sue him for millions.
But many of these adults become the target of more petty criticism. A tactless principal is described as having "birdnesty" hair. Strauss’s psychologist has "Bozo-grade kinks," as well as a mere "starter-Porsche." Such immaturity sticks out glaringly beside examples of Strauss’s fine analysis of the interaction between the social and personal management of grief, like when he reflects that "with each ritual performed successfully, another wall came up between me and the people I might have gone to and said: I don’t know how to feel." This shortcoming is indicative of one problem with this book: written in an attempt to "come to terms with [tragedy] more quickly," it often lacks the meticulous self-evaluation requisite of a strong memoir.
For what is more or less a confessional, Half a Life often seems impersonal, repackaged in tired language of the "Things don’t go away. They become you" variety. Yes, this is an impressively honest memoir, but one that reads vaguely like the story of something that happened to some guy some friend somewhere told you about, so that in the end, it glimpses poignancy only occasionally, evoking just half a sense of tragedy.