Criticism & Features

Year 2010: 30 Books

Karen Long on Darin Strauss’s “Half a Life”

By Karen Long

Each day leading up to the March 10 announcement of the 2010 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty-one finalists (to read other entries in the series, click here). Today, NBCC board member Karen Long discusses autobiography finalist Darin Strauss's Half a Life (McSweeney's).

It is possible to see a large swath of contemporary American literature – from the works of Cormac McCarthy to Jonathan Franzen – as wrestling with the nature of masculinity.

Darin Strauss's subtle, exceptional memoir, Half a Life, can be read as his attempt to come of age after an accident left him, at age 18, mired on the side of the road. “Half my life ago, I killed a girl,” he begins, recounting a Long Island, N.Y., afternoon in 1988 about a month shy of his high school graduation.

Strauss was driving his Oldsmobile, full of friends, perhaps fiddling with the radio, heading out for miniature golf. Two girls were pedaling bikes in the same direction alongside the four-lane road. For reasons that remain obscure, 16-year-old Celine Zilke bumped up onto the pavement, swerved left and crossed the outside lane into Strauss's path. She landed on the car's hood and cracked the windshield with her head.

She didn't die until the next morning. In the interval, unbelievably, young Darin went to the multiplex and saw Stand and Deliver. His parents insisted he go, and Strauss describes them as having “a genius for kindness, for devotion under pressure,” but this lapse in judgment is hard to reconcile.

More than 30,000 individuals die in crashes on U.S. roads each year. We tend not to think of automotive deaths as politically consequential, or bearing more weight than random tragedy. Darin Strauss makes us think again.

Half a Life has a fine, stripped-down quality; a narrator who reports that he “slept soundly” that first night is not currying our favor. He attended Celine's funeral––both “the hardest thing I've ever had to do” and, he admits, a marketing decision. “Real tears, some part of me knew, were right,” Strauss writes of the funeral. “I wasn't fully aware of most of this: I felt so much and understood so little, could express so little.”

That last sentence could be a coda for inchoate male adolescence. Young Darin departs for Tufts University, hoping to enter “college as a type of witness protection program.” It doesn't work.

The Zilkes sued the Strausses and their insurers for an undisclosed seven-figure amount––a case that dragged on for years. Despite the exoneration of witnesses, cops, and journalists, despite the physics calculations that indicated young Darin had no time to swerve, the boy from “the wide suburban ho-humness” had acquired a twin, a ghost.

The lawsuit, he writes bitterly, made sure of that.

The tracks of Celine are visible on Strauss’s body of work, and on his corporal self. His first novel Chang and Eng centers on twins––one dies, and the other can't go on living. Strauss’s turns gray at age 28, the same year he needs and submits to stomach surgery. About this time, our author meets a woman who reacts differently from the others he has dated to news of the accident. They marry and have a child.

Some may dismiss as callow the story of a privileged youth––who knew the make and model of Porsches better than his psychiatrist did––as unworthy of our attention. But Strauss’s hard struggle to write an examination of Celine’s death turns into his articulation of adulthood: “I knew enough not to give up, when I had given up so often in the past. We contain more than our understanding allows us, at any given moment, to understand.”

It is a rare privilege to make the trip of Half a Life. What might have been exploitative instead feels important, and dearly won.

To read an excerpt of Half a Life in the Denver Post, click here. Strauss's homepage, with links to reviews, can be accessed by clicking here.