I was surprised—but pleased—when Darin Strauss’s memoir Half A Life recently won the 2011 National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography. I hadn’t heard much buzz about the book. The judges called it a “brave and heartbreaking account,” placing it ahead of finalists that included Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids.
Half a Life may be the saddest book I’ve ever read.
Which, I hasten to add, doesn’t mean depressing, not exactly. More like sad, and haunting, but mesmerizing. I was in awe of the book and its execution when I read it in early winter, but didn’t write anything because I just didn’t know what to say. I decided to read it again, but haven’t yet. I will, though, at least when it’s in paperback so that I can use it in a memoir readings or writing class.
Strauss was only eighteen when he was driving himself and some friends to play miniature golf; a girl from his school turned her bicycle in front of his car, his parents’ Oldsmobile. There was no way to avoid hitting her. None. She died, and he’d never be the same. The horror of this situation keeps resonating as you see Strauss try to live with it. He’d accidentally violated one of our species’ deepest taboos, taking another human life. Contemplating his plight, across 200 pages, is uncomfortable. Like watching a slow-motion wreck.
I highly recommend Half A Life, though. It is a generous gift, this book; though a work of art, not a self-help book, it might help others deal with impossible burdens. And Strauss never spares himself, pointing out, for instance, times when he shut down and felt less than he might have or tried to make himself look better in the maelstrom after the crash. But he took to heart her mother’s injunction—a curse, really—that he must now live life for her daughter, too. The parents, who said they didn’t blame him, were soon suing him for millions of dollars. The carefree under-achiever became serious, studious, anxious, sad.
The wreck made him a writer—he’s a celebrated literary novelist. But it changed him in other, deeper psychic ways. He mostly hid his shameful secret from others, though he thought about the dead girl constantly. In college, he went to the library regularly and obsessively figured out the physics of the crash to prove to himself, over and over, that he could not have avoided her. After college he tells a few girlfriends, with mixed and volatile results. Finally, he marries. And ultimately his wife insists, when he’s 36, that he come to better terms with the accident—exactly half his lifetime ago—that’s always present, always coming between them.
Half A Life, emotionally restrained and rather somber, is the result. But the wound has so forged him that there’s no way he can just will himself to get it out of his system and get happy. The accident made Strauss who he is; it is inseparable from his identity.
The book is beautifully produced by McSweeney’s. There’s a review and video interview with Strauss at The New York Times book review.