Half a Life/Darin Strauss: Reflections

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dignity is a word I have long associated with Darin Strauss.  His refined mind and sensibilities were on display in novels like Chang and Eng.  A certain quietude pervaded interviews.  When I learned that Strauss was sending a memoir into the world, a memoir entrusted to McSweeney's (and hence, in some fashion, to the multiply talented and deeply generous Dave Eggers), I knew for certain what I'd be reading next.

I read Half a Life this morning, grateful for every white-steeped page.  It is, as you must have heard by now, the story of an accidental death—the story of what happened one day when Strauss set out to play some "putt putt" with his high school friends.  He was 18, behind the wheel of his father's Oldsmobile.  On the margin of the road, two cyclists pedaled forward.  Of a sudden, there was a zag, a knock, an "hysterical windshield." A cyclist, a girl from Strauss's school, lay dying on the road. She'd crossed two lanes of highway to reach Strauss's car.  He braked, incapable of forestalling consequences.

It was forever.  It was always.  A girl had died.  A boy had lived.  Strauss spent his college years, his twenties, his early thirties incapable of reconciling himself to the facts, of entrusting them to friends.  There's much he can't remember perfectly.  There are gaps, white space, breakage—all of which, in this McSweeney's production, is rendered with utmost decency—the thoughts broken into small segments, big breaths (blank pages) taken in between.  There is knowing here, not shouting.  There is an exploration of guilt, and no bravado. 

Half a Life sits now, on my shelf, beside Gail Caldwell's Let's Take the Long Way Home—two memoirs that transcend precisely because they are so quiet, so well considered, so honorable. These books, along with Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's Hiroshima in the Morning, give me hope that memoir, the form, is finding its center again.  There may not be any sure-fired truths, but there are consequences.  There may be stories, but they are always tangled.  There may be ache, but there is solace, too.  There may be drama, but in drama's wake, we stand.  In need of understanding.  In need of one another.


Julie P. said...

I just finished HIROSHIMA in the morning and I'm dying to read HALF A LIFE! I agree that memoirs have the ability to be so powerful!

Lilian Nattel said...

That does sound powerful, Beth. Thank you for these recommendations.

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