Monday, November 29, 2010

Releasing the Past, Memoir Style--On Reading Darin Strauss' Half a Life

Over the years, we hosted two events with Darin Strauss. Over the years, I have gotten to know him a bit, chatting with him on the floor of Book Expo, and once, even having lunch with him in Brooklyn. I read two of his three published novels, Chang and Eng and More Than it Hurts You. I didn't read The Real McCoy, but our buyer, Jason did, and liked it. I'm amused by when you look up his novel son our Ipage database, The Real McCoy is no longer an active title, but for some reason, Autentico McCoy from Planeta still is, even though there's no stock in any of the warehouses.

Of course I didn't know the events chronicled in Strauss's new memoir, Half a Life, but I'm sure there were people who were way closer than I was to Strauss who didn't know about the incidents either. When Strauss was a senior in high school, a classmate of his died after colliding with the car he was driving. I don't even know how to say this in the right way. But as you can imagine, this was an event that haunted him for many years, particularly as (and I'm not giving anything away here, as he chronicled it in "This American Life") the family sued him for millions of dollars.

Lightbulb. When Strauss would talk about his previous novel, More than it Hurts You, you would think he identified with Josh Goldin, the clueless father caught in a medial and legal crisis, but Strauss said he identified as much or more with Darlene Stokes, the African American doctor sued for malpractice, and that identification is much more clear after reading his memoir.

I'm sure that anyone reading this book will remember a buried memory of his or her own, a family secret that nobody talks about. I definitely have a few. Dani Shapiro reviewed Half a Life in The New York Times Book Review, and that makes sense, as she's another novelist who then wrote Slow Motion, a confessional memoir. I didn't read that, but read the sequel of sorts, Devotion, about which I recently blogged.

But here's the thing. There's nothing to confess. Strauss was exonerated of all blame after the accident, by numerous witnesses, as well as the police officer. It's one of those things, though. We want blame. It's somebody's fault. Strauss notes that driver's in blameless crashes suffer more stress afterwards than drivers who were at fault.

It's a spare story, beautifully told, and the McSweeney's package is just great. Wrap around band instead of dust jacket, a lovely burgundy cloth binding, and very nice paper indeed. It's such a pleasure to read a book where I can't read through the pages to the other side.

So do you give this book as a gift to someone, and how do they interpret it? Obviously there are many people struggling out there with these sorts of things. But as Pam Abrams points out in her Entertainment Weekly review (it can an A, by the way), it's a book that she and her two friends were able to read in short order on a trip, and they spent the rest of the trip talking about it. I can see a lot of people doing that.

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