Named a best book of 2019 by Parade
The Light Years is a joyous and defiant coming-of-age memoir set during one of the most turbulent times in American history
"This stunningly beautiful, original memoir is driven by a search for the divine, a quest that leads Rush into some dangerous places . . . The Light Years is funny, harrowing, and deeply tender." —Kate Tuttle, The L.A. Times
"Rush is a fantastically vivid writer, whether he’s remembering a New Jersey of 'meatballs and Windex and hairspray' or the dappled, dangerous beauty of Northern California, where 'rock stars lurked like lemurs in the trees.' Read if you loved… Just Kids by Patti Smith." —Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly
“As mythic and wild with love, possibility, and danger as the decades it spans, you’ll read The Light Years with your breath held. Brutal, buoyant and wise to the tender terror of growing up, Chris Rush has written a timeless memoir of boyhood in the American wilderness.” —Emma Cline, author of The Girls
Chris Rush was born into a prosperous, fiercely Roman Catholic, New Jersey family. But underneath the gleaming mid-century house, the flawless hostess mom, and the thriving businessman dad ran an unspoken tension that, amid the upheaval of the late 1960s, was destined to fracture their precarious facade.
His older sister Donna introduces him to the charismatic Valentine, who places a tab of acid on twelve-year-old Rush’s tongue, proclaiming: “This is sacrament. You are one of us now.”
After an unceremonious ejection from an experimental art school, Rush heads to Tucson to make a major drug purchase and, still barely a teenager, disappears into the nascent American counterculture. Stitching together a ragged assemblage of lowlifes, prophets, and fellow wanderers, he seeks kinship in the communes of the west. His adolescence is spent looking for knowledge, for the divine, for home. Given what Rush confronts on his travels—from ordinary heartbreak to unimaginable violence—it is a miracle he is still alive.
The Light Years is a prayer for vanished friends, an odyssey signposted with broken and extraordinary people. It transcends one boy’s story to perfectly illustrate the slow slide from the optimism of the 1960s into the darker and more sinister 1970s. This is a riveting, heart-stopping journey of discovery and reconciliation, as Rush faces his lost childhood and, finally, himself.
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About the Author
Reading Group Guide
1. Chris Rush has six siblings: Chuck and Kathy (by 1967, both married with children), his mentor Donna, younger brothers Michael and Steven, and baby Danny. There is a span of two decades between the youngest and the oldest siblings. These children were, in a sense, born into different families, at different times of American history. How do you think this affected their paths in life? In what ways are they different; in what ways similar?
2. Discuss Chris’s parents, Norma and Charlie. How would you characterize them as parents, and how do they each influence Chris’s character and life? Compare Chris’s impulsiveness to his mother’s sometimes manic naturethe constant shopping and vacations. Are mother and son similar in some ways? Also, consider Charlie’s alcoholism and Chris’s drug use. Are Chris and his father very different from one anotheror do you see any similarities in their characters?
3. When Chris wakes up in an Albuquerque hospital, his mother wants him to come home with her to New Jersey, but she finally relents and lets him stay with Donna in Arizona. Why do you think she agrees to this? Is Chris’s mother able to protect him at home? What would you have done for your son under similar circumstances?
4. Consider the various strains of religion and spirituality in The Light Years. Chris’s father, Roman Catholic, makes a fortune off organized religion, building churches for the Diocese of Trenton. Vinnie, Donna, and their dealer friends are also devoted to God, though they praise a more psychedelic Jesus. Owen’s family are lapsed Mormons, while Gabriel Green promotes a distinctly New Age view of life. How do these varieties of religious thought affect Chris’s life? Discuss his spiritual path and evolution, as you see it, from Catholic school, to living with Christian hippie drug dealers, to his time praying alone in the desert, looking for UFOs. Ultimately, what do you think he is searching for?
5. Early in the book, Donna tells Chris, “Vinnie thinks Mom and Dad use their money to control me.” Do you believe this is true? Later, Donna is willing to accept only three hundred dollars in pay from the drug dealer Lu, on a fifty-thousand-dollar transaction. Similarly, Chris goes from private-school luxury to being destituteand then, when suddenly flush with cash from dealing, he continues to live in the desert. Discuss the concept of hippie antimaterialism, and the change in Chris’s thinking when he starts to sell cocaine. Discuss the romantic ideals of the hippie world. Does Chris lose his romanticism by the end of the book?
6. How do Chris’s sexual experiences with Owen compare to losing his virginity with Julie? Does his botched attempt to sleep with Oonagh, his nanny, affect his understanding of himself? How much do you think Chris’s struggles with his sexuality play a role in the difficulties he finds himself in?
7. Did you find the scene of Donna giving birth to Jelissa beautiful or frightening, or both? Discuss Donna’s journey from high school cheerleader to drug runner to young mother with two children. What does Donna want out of life? Does she achieve it?
8. Chapter 29 is titled “Do You Remember Your Past Lives?” In this section, Chris is subjected to a “past-life regression” by Gabriel Green. What does the information that comes out about Chris’s “past life” tell us about Chris’s current life and his family? What does Chris come to realize in this chapter about his father? Lastly, do you see Gabriel Green as a father figure? If so, is he a positive one for Chris?
9. Discuss the progression of Chris’s drug use, from so-called “God-approved substances” (LSD, marijuana) to heroin and cocaine. What drives Chris’s drug use? Was he on a spiritual path, or simply self-medicating? Was there wisdom in Donna telling him to avoid certain drugs? Was Donna a bad influence or a fellow traveler who tried to watch out for him?
10. Discuss the themes of God and the Devil throughout the book. Do you think Chris was genuinely on a spiritual journey, or simply brainwashed? Are spiritual quests, by their nature, antisocial? Does Chris’s spiritual quest put him in danger?
11. A light year is the distance light travels in one year (nearly six trillion miles). How does the metaphor of light traveling an extraordinary distance apply to Chris’s turbulent youth? How does it apply to the experience of looking back on significant events that happened a long time ago?
12. How does Chris’s memoir capture a specific era in America’s cultural history? What seismic shifts took place in American family life during the 1970s? How does hippie drug culture compare to the modern-day opioid epidemic? What, if anything, has changed?
13. Tragically, Chris’s father loses both of his brothers. Do you think that this is the cause of Charlie’s instability and his troubled relationship with his children? Is there a connection between that tragedy and his alcoholism? Does Charlie’s past affect how you feel about him? When his past is finally revealed, did he become a more sympathetic individual for you?
14. Discuss the various families in the book: Chris’s original family; Chris’s new family with Donna and Vinnie, Lu and Jingle; his time living with the Spoons; his family of fellow travelers, such as Sean and Julie. Compare these groups and what was goodor not so goodabout them.
15. hen Chris discovers Sean’s history, he observes that the two of them were “the kind of boys people want to kill” (page 241). What does he mean? Discuss the evolution of Chris and Sean’s friendship.
16. On page 365, Chris reflects on his near-deadly descent and writes, “I don’t know why I was saved and others were lost.” Why do you think he survived while others in his circle did not? Was he more vulnerable because he was an artist, or did that help him prevail? Discuss the final section, “One Hundred Pies,” and how it compares to other recovery stories.
17. Is The Light Years a book about love? About drugs? Family? What was at the heart of this story for you?
18. How did the epilogue affect your understanding of fate and free will? When Chris paints his father’s portrait, what does this reveal about their relationhip? Has it changed? Has Chris changed?