Lambda Literary Award Finalist | A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
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.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|File size:||5 MB|
About the Author
Chris Rush is an award-winning artist and designer, whose work is held in various museum collections. The Light Years is his first book.
Read an Excerpt
We're in the basement, hiding from the heat. I'm in a sweaty heap with my little brothers, Mike and Steve, and two neighbor kids, Becky and Jimmy. We lie on the floor, silent, just the sound of our breathing.
Then I say it: Let's play poison.
The game is my invention and I'm prepared. From my shorts I produce a roll of Life Savers, carefully unspooling the foil wrapper. Slipping a cherry into my mouth, I hand out sublime flavors to my companions: watermelon, pineapple, orange, lime. They suck their candy, serious as cyanide.
We all wait for the inevitable — it won't be long.
It's the summer of '67 and I've just turned eleven. Thin as a matchstick, with a big dollop of blond hair across my brow, I close my eyes, preparing to die. As usual, Becky will be the first to feel the symptoms. Becky is excitable. She's twelve and a half, with flaming red hair and new boobs.
Becky doesn't know how to whisper. In perfect agony, she calls out, "Help me! Something's terribly wrong!"
I say, "What is it, my darling?"
She places my hand on her chest. "Can you feel it? I'm burning up!" she screams. And it's true: her breasts are surprisingly warm. "I-I can't breathe," she stutters. "Our food was poisoned!"
Taking my hand back from her hot bra, I tremble. "I feel strange, too. But who would do such an awful thing?"
"The Russians," Mike says.
"Or the Red Chinese!" Steven cries.
My brothers are endearingly bad actors — I'm proud of them for remembering their lines. In the half-light of the basement, I watch them grimace and grin.
"There must be an antidote!" I call out, as I clank through my father's liquor cabinet.
"It's too late for that. Uhhhhh!" Becky becomes hysterical. It's contagious. The five of us drool and twitch and run about, each suffering in our own special way. Steven, at eight, perishes in a torrent of blubbery tears. Michael, a brute at ten, keels over with a maximum of movie violence, convulsing and kicking the table as if drilled by machine-gun fire. Becky's little brother, Jimmy (strawberry curls and good manners), is wistful and understated. He coughs once and joins my brothers on the floor.
Becky and I are the final act. I embrace her as she goes limp in my arms.
"My darling. Please don't leave me!"
But Becky gurgles and spits and collapses in slow motion. With her last bit of strength, she grabs my Bermuda shorts and pulls them down. In one grand gesture, buxom Becky is gone.
Standing in my underwear, I consider my audience. They sprawl on the floor, eyes pretend-closed, awaiting my soliloquy. Since I'm already half-dead, I decide to risk a Calvary motif (I'm a good Catholic boy and know my New Testament). Stretching out my skinny arms, I ask, "Lord, Lord, why hast Thou forsaken us?"
My high voice echoes against the concrete. I improvise: "Dear God, why would You poison Your own children?" Standing in my underwear, beseeching heaven, I get a baby boner. Before I can pull up my shorts, the lights flick on and, instantly, my parents materialize, their mouths open in horror. Somehow Father Dempsey, pastor of our church, is standing between them. He turns a redder shade than usual.
Dad says, "For Christ's sake, Chris, pull up your pants."
"We were just playing."
Dad says, "Oh, I can help you with that."
Father Dempsey winks at me as I tug up my shorts.
Mom sighs — she understands the nature of drama.
Mother is very dramatic. Her clothes often veer toward costume. Today, she's wearing her gold I Dream of Jeannie slippers and a chiffon blouse that blooms like a giant orchid. Her hair flips upward, defying gravity — her lips pout, a shade of pumpkin pie.
As the other kids scurry upstairs, Mom pulls me aside.
"Fainting not enough?"
I'm thrilled she remembers.
* * *
I'D BEEN TEACHING myself how to faint — deeming it, in addition to dying, an important life skill. The trick was getting the little sigh right just before your knees gave out. After perfecting my technique, I'd run to show Mom, the one person who'd understand. She was in the kitchen, cooking dinner, and when I asked if she wanted to see me faint, she put down her wooden spoon and said, "Fainting is not a joke. Do you know I fainted in Spain once from too much garlic? I had to be hospitalized. If your father hadn't caught me, who knows what would have happened?"
Mom's story went on for quite a while. There was a handsome doctor ("I considered running away with him") and smelling salts ("a diabolic invention!"). My mother was famous for her monologues. I waited patiently, and when she was finished, I said, "So can I faint now?"
"I'm busy. Go faint for your brothers." And then: "We have guests coming tonight." She pointed a lacquered fingernail at me. "I don't want you fainting for any of them."
* * *
THE HOUSE OF RUSH was booming.
My parents' cocktail parties careened through the fifties and sixties like a great drunken circus. The whole town came and went. I remember a pastel sea of summer dresses; waiters flying by in black and white, carrying trays of martinis, ten at a time. Booze filled the world with excitement. Everyone danced and laughed, fell over and got up. If ladies landed in the pool, the men jumped in after them. There were sing-alongs and fistfights, bloody noses and slow cigars. And at the end of the night, as Dad helped the last of the guests out to their cars, Mom would get a flashlight and sweep the yard for bodies.
Sometimes, members of the fallen were local priests — men I respected and looked up to — so it was odd to find a cleric facedown in the daffodils. I knew that priests weren't like cops, they were never "off duty," but in our house they could let their hair down, as my mother liked to say.
"And their balls," as my father once added.
* * *
OF THE SEVEN Rush children, I was in the middle. I grew up when my parents were most fabulous — and most happy. They still believed that the past was firmly behind them. The past was always referred to with some suspicion — and I associated it with a phrase my mother often used: good riddance to bad rubbish. We rarely saw members of my mother's or father's family. I knew that bad rubbish had something to do with white trash.
By 1967, my two oldest siblings, Chuck and Kathy, were already married with kids. The next person in line was my sister Donna — a contagiously happy sixteen-year-old, leading us all to a better, brighter future. I adored her Vidal Sassoon blunt cut and artful mascara — and she had her priorities straight: after a star turn as captain of the cheerleading squad, she planned to become a professional model.
She'd already done summer training at the Barbizon Modeling School. For the two months of the program, Donna and I had taken a bus to New York City every Saturday. Though I was five years younger than my sister, Mom dubbed me Donna's chaperone. Preparing our outfits took the better part of Friday night. There is a photo of Donna in a peach cashmere wrap, with a taupe fedora and white eye shadow; I'm standing beside her in a glimmer-blue suit and yellow ascot.
Together, we'd prance up Fifth Avenue to Barbizon, to the little door where all the girls zoomed in. I'd wave goodbye as Donna disappeared into a world of poise, posture, and panty hose. I was captivated.
On my own, I walked around town in my miniature man-suit, window-shopping. I'd study all the stylish women walking into Saks. Style was a bid for happiness, a kind of hope.
On the bus home, Donna and I would page through fashion mags, searching for cool.
Frosted lips — yes.
Leopard leotards — yes.
Sputnik earrings — of course, of course!
I watched my sister closely, aped her every move — slowly separating myself from my younger brothers Michael and Steven, who were barbarians, and my baby brother, Danny, just a pet in diapers.
* * *
IN THE MIDDLE, I floated about freely, yapping to everyone. Once I'd exhausted Donna and my other siblings, I'd start on any adults hanging about. For a long time, I assumed adults knew much more than they actually did. But when I asked them about vampires or continental drift, they looked at me like they had no idea what I was talking about.
The time I asked Father Dempsey if he spoke with God, he pretended not to hear me. When I told him I talked to God all the time, he leaned in to whisper. "Maybe that's something you should keep to yourself."
Mom, at least, was fun. If I asked her a question, she always answered. She had lots of opinions. In that way, we were similar.
* * *
"MOM, ARE PAPER FLOWERS PRETTY?"
I knew it was a dumb question, but she took the bait.
"When your father and I were in Acapulco, children chased us around with paper flowers. Paper flowers and Chiclets! Or they just begged. It was very sad, all their little hands sticking out. Your father got quite teary, said he wanted to adopt every one of them. As if we could just scoop a brown baby off the street! I had to put my foot down. So, no, dear, paper flowers are not pretty. They're cheap."
"Oh, because I thought I might make some."
"I can't stop you, can I? Please don't make a mess."
* * *
WITH TISSUE PAPER, coat hangers, and floral tape, I methodically followed the directions in Family Circle magazine. Soon, a jungle of pink and purple pom-poms overtook my room. Cheerful as an elf, I carried out the two biggest for my mother.
Just in from golf, she wore white culottes and a buttercup visor. Before she even got off her sunglasses, I screamed, "Mom, Mom, look — flowers for you!"
"That's so sweet. Maybe keep them in your room for now, okay?"
After I'd assembled a dozen or two, I decided I should sell them. At my parents' next bridge party, I strolled from table to table showing off my wares. I wore my black Andy Warhol turtleneck to accentuate the merchandise. Flowers flopped about in various radioactive colors. The adults went quiet.
Then old Miss Chester spoke up. "Young man, what on earth are you doing?" She had a voice deeper than dirt. A cigarette dangled in her diamond claw. I smelled whiskey.
"I'm selling paper flowers, ma'am — five dollars each. I made them."
"Well, good for you." She grabbed her purse.
When I got excited as a kid, one of two things happened: I threw up or my voice got very high. At that moment, my voice filled the room like a dentist's drill. "Do you want red, yellow, or pink? I think yellow is best. But this is a fantastic pink! I'm not sure about red, though. It might be too much." My mother had told me that red was questionable after forty.
"Yellow is fine." Miss Chester handed me a ten-dollar bill.
"It's just so lovely doing business with you," I effused.
My father, at a corner table in shirt and tie, looked, for some reason, displeased.
"Norma!" he shouted across the room.
Mom took charge. "Chris, you're interrupting. Go watch TV."
"I have to make change," I said.
My client winked. "Keep it, honey-pants."
I handed her a flower and ran off with my tip.
* * *
WITHIN A WEEK, I'd made thirty-five bucks selling to every person who dared walk in our door. My sister Donna ordered two in school colors — blue and white. I was a factory; fake flowers spread to every corner of the house. In a fit of inspiration, I started adding perfume. Three spritzes per flower. I was using Mom's expensive stuff — Shalimar and Arpège. My brothers, though, acted like my flowers were poisonous. Dad, too.
I didn't understand.
Mom did. "Honey, how about I buy all your flowers? Every single one."
"Yes, then let's say enough for a while. You need to go outside and get some air. You smell like a lady of the evening. Why don't you jump in the pool?"
"Okay, Mom. Thanks!"
* * *
I LOVED OUR POOL.
It was huge — bluer than heaven. Around it, the trees strutted, the roses roared.
Finished in '56, our house was my father's midcentury masterpiece. Featured in newspapers and fashion shoots, our house was new, new, new! — no attic, no heirlooms, no trace of the past.
Every detail was carefully managed by Norma Farrow Rush, the pale-skinned daughter of a taxidermist. She no longer had to do any dirty work for her father; the house was her shining rebuke.
The kitchen was immaculate, wrapped in Formica, smooth as snow. And though Mom had dined all over the world, she seemed happiest in her own kitchen, performing for twenty guests in a snug apron and high heels. By some Catholic miracle, her figure improved with each child. Babies, she said, were her beauty secret.
Sometimes when Dad was out late at a meeting, I'd sit with Mom at the kitchen table and watch her play cards. She taught me how to win at solitaire — by cheating. She placed each card down with a decisive snap, saying: If you don't cheat, you lose — and what fun is that?
Past her makeup and her jewelry, I could always spot the glimmer of sadness. I think she could see me seeing it. She called me "the sensitive one."
There were days when Mom was particularly manic, when there was nothing left to cook or clean, no fund-raiser or bridge party. I'd come home from school and she'd say, "Let's go for a spin." Often it was simply a run to the grocery store — but sometimes we'd drive out to an old cemetery in the woods off Route 9, to look at headstones.
The names on the stones were not Rush or Farrow.
"Who are these people?" I asked my mother.
"Old families, long gone," she said. "I love how peaceful it is out here."
I recall my shock, seeing a marker in which the year of birth and the year of death were the same. The stone read: BORN INTO THE ARMS OF ANGELS. There was no name. Only the word Baby.
My mother told me not to mention where we'd been.
"What would your father think?"
* * *
ON THE WAY HOME, Mom would drive past the place she grew up. It wasn't much, just a small apartment over a run-down store. Red neon still flashed above the door: BAIT AND TACKLE. Out front was a life-sized concrete brontosaurus — a New Jersey landmark. I longed for a closer look, but no matter how many times I asked, Mom would never stop.
Her father was still living there. Sometimes, I could glimpse him standing behind the counter. Mom, eyes on the road, never once looked toward the shop.
I didn't ask about him. Questions of that sort were not encouraged. To Mom, the past was something you sped by — and best to do it at ten miles over the speed limit, in a brand-new white Cadillac.
Whoosh! Good riddance to bad rubbish.
* * *
MOM WAS DEMANDING when it came to other people — and especially hard on the help. Our most recent nanny had been let go for body odor. Her room downstairs had been empty all summer while Mother tried to air out the smell of poverty.
One afternoon, I went down and sat cross-legged on the black linoleum. It was quiet in the basement, and it smelled fine to me. A square of light fell from the high window, landing on the floor like a magic doorway. I thought it was poetic.
I was sharing a bedroom with my brother Michael, who was not poetic. I asked Mom if I could move downstairs, claiming I needed greater privacy.
"You're eleven," she said. "You don't need privacy. You need supervision."
From whom, I wondered.
Mom was not much of a supervisor. She regarded her children as her audience — and once we'd applauded, we could do as we wished.
* * *
DAD WAS MORE of a mystery — a dark planet, exerting only vague astrological influence on his offspring. He walked with a limp, a steel brace on one leg from the car crash of '64. He was still strong, though, and steady. He could be quite charming, always ready to amuse guests with a story or a joke. But to a child, to a son, he had nothing to say. He seemed unsure around kids, uncomfortable, even guilty. I knew something bad had happened to him, something that couldn't be talked about.
There was always silence in his wake.
Every Sunday, our family went to church, but Dad went during the week, as well. He went to confession often and took Communion every day. I was intrigued by the idea of his soul — and even more intrigued by the idea of his sin. What could it be?
* * *
WHEN AGAIN I BROUGHT UP the idea of my taking the maid's quarters, Mother had already moved on. She was on the phone, talking about Dotty Doone, the golf pro who dressed like a man. As she gossiped, I carried my clothes and records downstairs right in front of her.
Once I'd settled in, I asked my mother about décor.
It was the exact right word. Instantly, she came alive. "You know, I always meant to do something down there. Make a statement. I don't know why the girls we hire don't make more of an effort. Why live in squalor?"
When I suggested we paint, Mom smiled. "How about a wild yellow? Maybe a marigold — the kind of yellow that wants to be orange."
"That's me — I'm a yellow who wants to be orange!"
"Yes, I know that about you."
Soon we were downtown, looking at swatches — and the next day the basement was reborn. Against black linoleum, marigold was a rocket launch, a flower-power explosion. Inspired by photos of hippie crash pads in Life magazine, I went on to strangle my bookcase with Christmas lights. I taped tinfoil to the ceiling and threw fake fur on the floor. From a ratty record store in town, I'd procured a black light and the necessary posters; now Jimi and Janis flickered on my wall. When Donna came down, she nodded in approval. She gave me incense and a 45 of Donovan's "Mellow Yellow" — which I played a thousand times.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Light Years"
Copyright © 2019 Chris Rush.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I: My Education,
1. Flower Boy,
5. Virgin in Ruins,
6. The Help,
7. Star Farms,
Part II: Give me a Home,
8. Peter Pan,
9. You Don't Belong Here,
12. Sixteen Kilos,
13. The Bermuda Triangle,
14. Five Gunshots, Maybe Six,
15. For Your Own Protection,
Part III: The Fool,
19. The Barbizon School of Drug Running,
20. Miracle of the Dust,
21. The Spoons,
22. I Just Like Vegetables, Sir,
Part IV: Spaceships,
23. Mom in Mud,
25. A Better Man,
26. What I Didn't Know Then,
27. The Invitation,
28. The Flood,
29. Do You Remember Your Past Lives?,
30. By the Grace of God,
31. The Valley,
32. The Biggest Trees on Earth,
33. Brief Landings on the Earth's Surface,
34. Rush Brothers Construction,
Part V: The Real Deal,
35. New Religion,
36. St. Granola,
37. Mysterious Substance,
39. Black World,
41. How Can You Say That?,
42. We Are Gathered Here Today,
Part VI: One Hundred Pies,
43. I Wish I Had a River,
Epilogue: The Portrait,
A Note 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?