Critical Mass

How New York Inspires Darin Strauss

By Jane Ciabattari

The third and last act in the NBCC's Urban Mirrors: New York, New York event at the New School was Darin Strauss, who won this year's NBCC award in autobiograpy for Half a Life. (The others: Lynne Tillman and David Hajdu.)

Strauss grew up on Long Island, which he describes in Half a Life as “a tailless crocodile with its mouth open. Its far shore yawns into a pair of peninsulas a hundred miles east of New York City, and the crococdile’s hind end nestles right up against Manhattan.” He lives in Brooklyn and teaches at New York University.

He surprised and delighted us be the risky maneuver of reading the opening pages of a new novel, a work in progress that is, as yet, untitled. It's about New York real estate (his grandfather was involved in that, as was Donald Trump's father) and Lucille Ball. The opening pages are set in Coney Island (which was a partial setting in his novel The Real McCoy. in which an scam artist  sets himself up to become the boxing champion of the world).  (He explains it all in the video below.)

His earlier novels, Strauss said, were inspired in part by the experience as a high school senior he describes finally in his memoir.“Half my life ago, I killed a girl,” he writes. He was driving along one morning, soon to graduate from high school, when a classmate on a bicycle swerved in front of his car and landed on the hood. She died the next morning. He didn't survive intact. Her shadow self hovered over him, invoked by her mother, who said he was now living for two.

His  first novel–Chang & Eng--was about Siamese twins who were celebrities in the nineteenth century. When one dies, the other cannot keep living. There's a clear connection to the accident, he said. He saw Siamese twins interviewed on TV, saying at one point,”We're a big girl now.” The idea of  multiple selves fascinated him. HIstorical fiction is, in ways, a way of writing about his life without looking at it directly, he added. Writing the memoir was tougher by far.

NBCC board member Karen Long summed up Strauss's accomplishment in her review of Half a Life for the 31 Books in 31 Days series: “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.”

Darin Strauss talks about his new novel in progress, about real estate, Coney Island, & Lucille Ball…