Complicated griever.

At 18, Darin Strauss, driving an Oldsmobile full of friends to play mini-golf, struck and killed a bicyclist. The girl he hit was a 16-year-old named Celine, a classmate of Strauss's. Witnesses and the police investigation fully exonerated him, but being left to go on living after taking a life is not a simple thing.

Half a Life is Strauss's account of the incident and its repercussions. Even though memoir is by definition self-involved, Strauss wants us to hear, loudly, that he knows this is not about him. He worries that he is milking someone else's tragedy—a legitimate concern. The horrible thing that happened here happened to this dead girl and her family. But his story definitively proves otherwise; something tragic happened to Strauss as well, and he writes about it with great skill. His prose is precise, straightforward, and on occasion startlingly beautiful. Here's the crash itself, distilled: "Pretty girl on bike, a shy little thud, hysterical windshield."

He details both the enormous and the minute ways this event colors his days. In college, he becomes obsessed with physics, in order to solve the math problem that defines his life: A car is traveling at 40 miles per hour when a bicycle darts into its path 10 feet away. How many milliseconds will it take to end a girl's life? Is this a stoppable event? In his mid-20s, he has a panic attack on a first date when they go to see I Know What You Did Last Summer. Every new love interest becomes a time bomb—when will he have to tell her his secret? It's easy to imagine Celine as a bodily presence, hovering over his shoulder. "I'd later think of Celine at my wedding and when my wife told me that she was pregnant. Name an experience: It's a good bet I've thought of Celine while experiencing it." He goes gray at 28 and suffers chronic, painful digestive problems.

At times, Strauss seems to be punishing himself by recounting thoughts or actions he clearly considers shameless—posing in a statue of faked grief at the scene of the accident because cute girls were watching from another car, or constantly worrying over what his fellow students think of him now. But however grave the situation, it is not difficult to have sympathy for a teenage boy posturing to impress girls or agonizing over his public image. The confessions feel like apologies, and the distress beneath them is palpable.

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It seems he's made an unspoken promise to the reader: I will spare neither you nor myself one single second of the awfulness or mundaneness of this thing. Toward the end of the book, Strauss describes a form of therapy meant to help people cope with experiencing—euphemism alert—Complicated Grief Disorder. Sufferers record a tape of themselves reliving and explaining the tragic event, then listen to it over and over. The point is not to torture the pain away, but to create a concrete object that can contain the pain, an object that can be set aside. "I hoped to make this book my tape," he admits.

It's a lot to ask of the reader to come along on what amounts to a marathon therapy exercise, but by picking up a book like this, we are guilty of a kind of rubbernecking. We're participants in his "creating an entertainment out of misfortune" (as Strauss puts it, worrying again that he's doing something wrong). Whether it's worth it or not may depend on the reader's level of empathy for this level of paralytic anxiety and self-doubt. But it's absorbing to watch him scramble through his labyrinth of guilt and grief in such well-turned phrases. And there's a deep satisfaction for us, as witnesses, in his finally catching sight of the way out. recommended