These days, if you're a writer looking for book-jacket blurbs like "brave" and "keenly observed," all you have to do is pen a memoir that details what a little shit you were growing up. That's what novelist Jill Ciment does here, writing about her coming of age without much money in Southern California in the '60s with a good-hearted, indulgent, fun-loving mother and an ill-tempered milkpod of a father who -- because of his lousy moods, obsessiveness about money, and inability to connect with his family emotionally -- is ultimately banished to live by himself in a seedy low-rent apartment.
"Half a Life" starts out promisingly enough. In one sharp passage, Ciment describes her adolescent grooming ritual, which involves teasing her hair high and applying gobs of eye makeup: "I couldn't tell if it was the paint or exhaustion, but my eyelids felt as heavy as garage doors." But if Ciment isn't afraid to paint herself as the kind of kid you might not like much, it's not long before her bravery starts to smell like something else. Never too hot on school, she cuts classes to work for a sleazeball market researcher who pays her surprisingly well to fill out fake surveys. Without finishing high school, she takes off to New York to become an artist. (She ends up working at a "modeling" agency, getting paid to pose nude for lowlife shutterbugs, and though she admittedly never bothered to look for a real job, she makes sure we know how degrading this work is.)
When she can't take any more, she begs her mother for money to fly home. Then she gets accepted at a snobby boho art school by getting a brainy friend to take her SATs for her. By the time Ciment tries to strangle her father after he refuses to give her money to replace her stolen car (her brother shows up just in time to save the man's life), we're probably supposed to be applauding her potent honesty and her triumph over adversity, as the pedigreed blurbmeisters on the back of "Half a Life" do: they go on about the book's lack of blame and self-pity, oblivious to its lack of self-blame and compassion for others. Just think of the praise Ciment could have gotten if she'd managed to kill the guy.