When novelist Strauss was 18, a cyclist swerved in front of his car – cruising at 40mph on the Long Island Expressway – and flipped up into his windshield. The cyclist was a classmate of his, Celine Zilke, and the impact sent her into shock. She later died in hospital.
Though it happened, as he writes, ‘half his life ago’. Strauss still struggles with that day. He was found to be not at fault – Zilke flicked her bike in front of Strauss’s car milliseconds before they collided – but navigating the rest of his young life as the boy no one’s allowed to blame proves difficult. Somehow writing in both direct and lyrical language (‘At the church door I took a shaky gulp and wrapped my palms around the handles and my heart was a live bird nailed to my chest.’), Strauss writes unsparingly about the emotional fallout of the accident.
He finds himself both unable to cope with the conflicting emotions and incapable of expressing himself in a way that meets expectations. At Zilke’s funeral: ‘I was relieved to feel tears on my face. Among the selves jostling inside me was an actor who could manipulate people, while the frightened kid in there sweated out his confusion.’
As eloquent as it is exhaustive, Half a Life catalogues the conflicts and complexity of living inextricably tied to, but also outside of tragedy. Strauss is well aware that his story is not the tragic one, and his self-consciousness about how to feel about his own life actually provides some of the most honest and moving passages. The tension of the accident never quite leaves him. ‘When I was 28, my hair went gray and I had stomach surgery. I’d been grinding out my insides.’ It’s a hard look at how the past sticks with us, no matter who’s to blame.