:: Article

Things Become You

By Max Dunbar.


Half a Life, Darin Strauss, Beautiful Books 2011
It strikes me that Darin Strauss is wrong when he writes that ‘Our lives are not designed to allow for anything irrevocable.’ In the age of the automobile irrevocable acts happen every day. Strauss himself writes that forty thousand a year die on America’s roads. The UK loses over two thousand. The consequences for vehicular manslaughter are laughable. Men can walk out of court after having struck and killed women and children. Every Christmas there’s a round of plaintive radio ads asking motorists not to get too wrecked before sitting behind the wheel. People have to be constantly reminded of basic moral norms that should be second nature. 

Legislators are afraid to take on the belligerent and self-pitying car lobby, which thinks drivers have a human right to endanger themselves and others. A few years ago there was actually a series of explosions at a DVLA office, the London C-charge office and a firm linked to speed cameras, injuring four workers and prompting a spokesman from the Association of British Drivers to claim that ‘because of our failure to campaign hard enough, somebody’s had to resort to this.’ The government should pedestrianise entire cities and invest in high speed rail. It should expropriate all personal vehicles and melt them into slag.

In Half a Life the novelist Darin Strauss quotes Martin Amis’s line that we have a reasonable expectation of getting through life without being murdered; he adds that we also hope to get through life without murdering anybody ourselves. The taboo on the taking of life is something innate, not social. Even though there was no fault on Strauss’s part, the accident changed him forever. He would not have become a writer without it.

At eighteen Strauss knocked down and killed a teenage girl. At the funeral, the girl’s mother told him: ‘You’re living for two.’ The insurance company had offered them twenty thousand of what’s known in the trade as ‘going away money’. An attorney persuaded the family that they could sue Strauss for millions. The case staggered on for years before collapsing, and left Strauss with the constant sense that everything in his life could be taken away at any time.

This is a good, short book about guilt and irrevocability. You get the impression that every word has been sweated out. From the day of the crash, Strauss would question his right to go to college and make love and work and start a family of his own. He hated himself for being alive. Every new experience would be another thing Celine Zilke would never do. And the guilty man feels no right to guilt or remorse or self-loathing or any complex emotions. You don’t get salvation through faith alone; ‘it seems crazy that the force of all that human want can’t amend a moment, can’t even stir a pebble.’

At the beginning, he looked for the Out: theorised that the girl was suicidal, and seized on a diary entry – ‘Today I realised that I am going to die’ – that Zilke wrote on the day of the crash. Suicide by auto is common, and I sometimes wonder how train drivers deal with the fallout when people fling themselves onto the line. But he comes to the conclusion that Zilke’s reference was universal: ‘there’s a good chance that she meant only that she’d come to understand that she would – in the future, when all of us are quietly smudged from the blackboard, one by one – die someday.

By his forties, and with children of his own, Strauss has let himself enjoy moments in sunshine. There comes a point where selfishness becomes the one sane and compassionate and moral decision. Still, I think that most of us are listening in the dark for the voice that says: You’re okay, son. What you’re doing is okay. Keep going. You’re okay. And we don’t hear it. It’s one more thing that you have to work out for yourself – the strength not to beat yourself up, to let yourself go at times.

We come back to the irrevocable entwined into the everyday. ‘Because I was alive in a certain place, Celine Zilke isn’t anymore.’ That is the tragedy – how fragile we are, such unprotected physical creatures, and through our fantasy of strength and freedom we have built a world where the irrevocable can happen every day.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 6th, 2011.