By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Absolved from any wrongdoing by the police and a bevy of witnesses, Strauss was supposedly forgiven by the girl's parents. Yet, soon thereafter, they sued him for millions of dollars, a case that was eventually settled out of court for a nominal fee, but not until it had hung over his head for five years, leaving "this financial ruin looming over me"—already a familial obsession. Beyond the money, Strauss was haunted by the accident's randomness, trying for years to figure out how it could have happened and always afraid of someone not knowing "that I'm a good guy, or whatever."
"I think the idea of her parents being out there and blaming me for her death was something that really bothered me for a long time," he says now. "After I saw the article in the paper about the accident, I was always thinking, 'Anybody in Long Island who meets me is going to know that I did this and get the wrong idea. They're not going to know that she's completely to blame.' It's funny—even watching a sitcom, if someone is misunderstood, I have to leave, or turn it off."
For years afterward, he remained in a sort of lingering emotional shock, as he graduated from Tufts University and tried to scratch together a writing career. There was the part-time gig writing about the local nightlife for the Aspen Times while he worked in a bakery by day, and nearly a year of funk delivering Chinese food while living back with his parents on Long Island and reading all the classics he had skipped in college. More years of writing seven articles, every two weeks, for a financial-technology newsletter when "I didn't understand anything about finances or technology. It was like writing in another language."
The job plunged him back into a cauldron of unworthiness—"I got an ulcer from that job. I think it was from the stress, because I knew I was a fraud." The ulcer was one of many physical manifestations of his guilt over the accident, as Strauss has written, including a possible hiatal hernia—"that haze of mystery discomforts called IBS . . . another murky ailment called CPPS, or chronic pelvic pain syndrome. My internal climate was a hurricane alley, where storm after storm had plenty of fuel to develop."
Balm came in the form of an MFA program at NYU, where Strauss went to night classes and learned to write fiction under E.L. Doctorow and Peter Carey. Unlike most MFA students, his writing was never strictly autobiographical, but returned again and again to questions of identity, often placed in the most exotic settings. Strauss's debut novel, Chang and Eng (2000), was a daring work about the original (literal) Siamese twins, 19th-century sensations who, in real life, as in the book, ended up as married fathers and slave owners in antebellum North Carolina—"the first famous interracial marriage in American history." The Real McCoy (2002) was a still more experimental historical novel, this one inspired by the legendary turn-of-the-century wrestler, who kept altering his own identity.
Strauss's newest work, by contrast, is a contemporary novel published earlier this year by Dutton: More Than It Hurts You. It's a brazenly ambitious work, what Strauss likes to call "full-dress fiction," a mass-audience story that's also trying "to say something about America." The plot revolves around a yuppie Jewish couple on Long Island whose infant son suffers a series of scary, unexplained medical episodes. The mother is accused of having Munchausen's-by-proxy, a syndrome by which she deliberately causes harm to her own child in order to get attention. It's a controversial disorder, one that some parents'-rights groups insist does not exist at all but which, according to Strauss, most pediatricians claim they've witnessed but will often let slide because it's so hard to prove. In Strauss's book, the situation is further inflamed by the fact that the doctor doing the accusing is an African-American single mother, who happens to have an ex-con, Muslim-convert, sometime-black-nationalist for a father. Ultimately, family, doctor, hospital, and community are pitted against each other, all under siege from a leering media that distorts every piece of information it's fed.
Strauss's own past is strewn throughout the story, from the damning newspaper articles to the stomach-churning court hearings. The African-American doctor, Darlene Stokes, is a good person, trying to do right, but one whose every motive is deliberately distorted by conniving lawyers and journalists. The seemingly ideal Jewish couple, the Goldins, are not really what they seem. In the end, through a series of brilliant set pieces and some flat-out, bravura writing, Strauss, like all outstanding novelists, elevates his personal obsessions to a wider indictment of our culture and its wobbly, often conveniently fraudulent relationships with truth and identity.
Now, all he had to do was sell the thing. The early reviews for More Than It Hurts You were overwhelmingly favorable, even exuberant. There was the usual, crowded New York reading to launch the book (New York readings are usually well-attended because so many of us live here and we fill each other's audiences—something else that may have contributed to the badly warped impression of reading tours that most publishing executives seem to have), at which Darin even performed a comic guitar duet with his former agent, the comedian and satirist John Hodgman.