I remember going to the Happy Ending reading series years ago, back when it was still at the bar Happy Ending in Chinatown, back before it cost $15 to see writers read and take risks. Darin Strauss was reading, among others. I knew him as a fiction writer so was surprised when he launched into a personal essay. Surprised, then knocked out, floored. The essay was simple and beautiful. It was about the time he killed a girl.
The next time I saw Darin Strauss at a reading, it was Shelly Oria’s series SWEET: Actors Reading Writers. The passage he chose for his assigned actor to read was the same one I’d heard that night at Happy Ending. It was a bit less powerful seeing something so personal read by another person, yet somehow more powerful, too, because I knew how often Darin made the choice to put this information out into the world. This was a person who was dealing.
I also found out, at SWEET, that the passage was an excerpt from a memoir, Half a Life. When I got a bit of money for my birthday with which to order books, it was at the top of my list. I started it yesterday and finished it this morning. It is short, yes, but also compelling enough to warrant a sort of read-while-you-transfer-trains, read-before-bed-and-when-you-wake-up sort of absorption.
The book is not only fairly short but small in scale and fabric bound, the title and author’s name printed in metallic ink on the cover and spine. It is the burgundy color of old books and has a timeless, or out of time, feel. Pages are often printed only on one side, a “chapter” consisting only of a few lines. Each word and sentiment is hard-won and precious, and presented as such. I don’t mean precious in the pejorative, by the way.
I can give away some plot, I think: Darin Strauss did not set out to kill a girl when he was eighteen. A schoolmate of his, Celine Zilke, was riding her bike along the side of the road and suddenly, inexplicably, veered across two lanes of traffic into his car. At Celine’s funeral, her mother entreats him to live his life for two people, to do everything twice as well. He wrote the book half a life later, at the age of thirty-six.
As much as it seems like this would be a depressing read, one more essential for the writer than the reader, it is not. It is as stunning structurally as it is in terms of subject and it is quite literary–in fact, it quotes one of my all-time favorite stories, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” by Amy Hempel. I’ve written about that story on this blog, and can barely talk about it without crying. Strauss uses it to great effect. He tells a specific story here, not the story of his life over the past eighteen years, but the story of his life with regards to this accident, how the fact of what happened intersected with his work, his relationships, his self-regard. And yet still, the book does not come off as self-involved.
Needless to say, I recommend it.