When you first meet Joshua Prager, you see his stick. Then you see the smile, the warmth in his face, and the light in his eyes. And the stick doesn’t matter.
But in his memoir, of course it does. It symbolises another life entirely from the one he meant to lead.
When I first met Josh, while we were both Nieman Journalism Fellows, he was throwing himself fully into Harvard University life, while simultaneously wrestling with the challenges of telling his story to the outside world. Only now do I understand why he frequently posted his email replies at three in the morning.
Joshua Prager’s “Half-Life” is raw and rich with vivid memories of the crash that nearly killed him. When you’ve read it you feel you know that nineteen year old, filled with talent and testosterone, who ran down the hill in the sunshine and jumped on a minibus in Jerusalem, only to be pulled from the backseat as a quadriplegic, after a lorry smashed into him.
But you’ve also had a very intimate introduction to the thirty eight year old who’s pulled himself through physical rehabilitation and still harbours the anger / anguish of having to face life in a different body.
Josh is a talented writer even before his life story comes into it. He’s written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Vanity Fair and I hear from friends (not from him) that his TED talk in California last week brought him a standing ovation. I’m relieved to report that he’s modest as well.
In 2007, he wrote this review for the Wall Street Journal of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, and freely admits that he formed “Half-Life” to reflect that work. But Prager’s writing I think takes you even more deeply into the man – reflecting repeatedly on what disability does to masculinity, about his struggles with identity, independence, sexual desire.
Because I know Josh, I can’t see how this short memoir would read to an outsider. Parts of the book make me very emotional. Compared to what he’s been through it’s nothing, but I also have some experience of physical panic and impotence – intubated, ignored – on a hospital ward, and some of the medical memories in “Half Life” brought me back to tears.
But I do know that this is very good writing, from a very American voice. The prose freewheels through Josh’s passions for baseball and Jewish culture and “Moby Dick” and New York City, where he lives. It lays bare the humiliations of the body come undone, shoved around by uncaring medics. It reminds us quietly of the politics of disability, when Josh forces his university campus to give his wheelchair access, an act that literally opens doors across the U.S.
And it’s a meditation on what really matters. Josh loses his God, he suffers “spasms of sadness”, he brings home to us what it means to have to struggle to experience the simplest things. Just one example – on Independence Day in New York City – he talks about his father wheeling him in from the park – but “I ached to be amid mustard and strangers and sun, the splendid ordinariness of life on the outside”.
In the end, he holds fast to the thought that “we are whom we love and what we do”.
The book acknowledges self-pity, and despair. It aims to kick them out of the ball park.