Fairly or not, books with the McSweeney’s imprimatur come with certain expectations. Darin Strauss—pre-established and much-praised novelist though he is—lives both up and down to those expectations in Half A Life, an honest but fatally self-questioning memoir on the years of fallout from the accidental killing of his high-school senior-year classmate. Best known for his first novel, Chang And Eng, Strauss tells the story with fragmented self-consciousness, explaining late in the game how all this relates to his work: “First novel about twins (one dies, the other can’t go on living); second novel about a guy who’s a con artist, a fraud, and an impostor all at once; most recent novel about a marriage where the truest thing between the couple never gets spoken.” Those are all, he notes, “chiseled from the same real story.” Half A Life tries to lance the trauma, this time without the artifice of fiction, and comes up straining for the right balance between art and self-consciousness. Ultimately, it stumbles through a series of apologies.
“My fear now is that all of this sounds over-aestheticized, and vague” is one of the first of many qualifiers and hedges. The objective timeline is simple enough: when Strauss was a teenager, his classmate’s bike swerved in front of his car too quickly for him to react. Officially absolved, but still obsessed with the ultimate unknowability of what could have been, Strauss went to college, only to find that the same bereaved parents who once promised they didn’t resent him were now suing him for bankruptcy-inducing sums. They backed down, but Strauss’ long journey to self-forgiveness was far from over.
The book trickles out at the dazed pace of one long, tentative processing of the same story, from denial to self-flagellation and survivor’s guilt, and finally to some kind of acceptance. The chapters are short, some filling up only a few lines of the page. Strauss is shooting for absolute honesty on his own schedule, and he’s strong on the ways the ego and self-concern can pop up. An early bit about him performing a “plagiarized ‘emotional’ reaction” for two crash onlookers—“fingers between the ears and temples, like a man who’s just won the US Open”—is one of his strongest moments.
But elsewhere, his self-paralysis is more literary: “Is that puffed up enough, labored and lyrical enough, to seem like something extracted from a novel?” he asks in the middle of describing the girl’s funeral. It is, actually, and much of the book tacks uneasily between plainspoken honest anxiety and writerly frills that go against the project’s (perhaps impossible) goal: writing honest art that’s also a sincere penitence that may not even be called for.