A blistering new memoir about the consequences of tragedy

By Pam Abrams
Updated September 16, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

I recently went on a trip with a couple of friends, one of whom brought along Half a Life. The book’s slender enough that the three of us devoured it in three days—and beautifully written enough that we spent the rest of the trip discussing it.

The premise lends itself to intense conversation: At 18, in the spring of his senior ?year of high school, Strauss was driving in his suburban Long Island neighborhood when he struck a girl on a bike—a classmate and acquaintance—who had suddenly swerved into his lane. She died that night, setting in motion events that Strauss faced for years after the accident, including a court case.

A critically acclaimed novelist (Chang and Eng), Strauss waited over 20 years to tell this story. And his distance from it is one of the things I liked best. Too many memoirs suffer from lack of perspective. But Strauss explores memory, guilt, and coming-of-age from a mature vantage point that leads to enormous insight. (About his parents and sister, he says, “Real difficulty, if it holds any benefits, holds this one: Sometimes it lets you find out if your family has a genius for kindness, for devotion under pressure.”) You may have heard Strauss tell this tale on NPR’s This American Life. Here’s the written version, by a terrific storyteller who doesn’t waste a word. A