Light Years

Light Years



The Pequod Review:

James Salter’s fourth novel chronicles the breakdown of a seemingly ideal marriage between a suburban New York City husband and wife (Viri and Nedra). Salter's set pieces are an impressionistic delight; few authors are able to so successfully create prose that is both precise and multi-layered. This is apparent on nearly every page, but here for example is his description of Viri’s disconsolation after Nedra leaves him:

Every object, even those which had been hers, which he never touched, seemed to share his loss. He was suddenly parted from his life. That presence, loving or not, which fills the emptiness of rooms, mildens them, makes them light – that presence was gone. The simple greed that makes one cling to a woman left him suddenly desperate, stunned. A fatal space had opened, like that between a liner and dock which is suddenly too wide to leap; everything is still present, visible, but it cannot be regained.

And here is his description of the death of Nedra’s father:

By morning her father had gone into a coma. He lay helpless, breathing more evenly, more slowly, there were pads of moist gauze on his eyes. She called to him: nothing. He had said his last words.

Suddenly she was choked with sadness. Oh, peace to you, Papa, she thought. For hours she sat by the bed.

He was stubborn. He was strong. He could not hear her now, nothing could rouse him. His arms were folded weakly across his chest like featherless wings. She wiped his face, adjusted his pillow.

Viri called that evening. “Is there any change?”

“I’m going out for some dinner,” she told him. She talked to the children. How was Grandpa, they asked. “He’s very sick,” she said.

They were polite. They didn’t know what to reply.

It took a long time, it took forever; days and nights, the smell of antiseptic, the hush of rubber wheels. This frail engine, we think, and yet what murder is needed to take it down. The heart is in darkness, unknowing, like those animals in mines that have never seen the day. It has no loyalties, no hopes; it has its task.

The night nurse listened to him. It had begun. Nedra leaned close. “Papa,” she said, “can you hear me? Papa?”

His breaths came faster, as if he were fleeing. It was six in the evening. She sat all night as he lay there gasping, his body working with the habit of a lifetime. She was praying for him, she was praying against him and thinking to herself as she did, You’re next, it’s only a matter of time, a few swift years.

At three in the morning there was only the light at the nurse’s desk, there was no doctor. The corridors were empty.

Below was the dark, impoverished town, its sidewalks crumbled, its houses so close there was not even space to walk between them. The ancient schools were silent, the theater, its windows covered with metal sheet, the veterans’ halls. Through the center ran not a river, but a broad, silent bed of rails. The tracks were rusted, the great repair shops closed. She knew this steep town, she was friendless here, she had turned her back on it forever. In it, sleeping, were distant cousins, never to be claimed.

She listened to the terrible struggle that was going on upon the narrow bed. She took his hand. It was cool; there was no feeling in it, no response.

She watched him. He was fighting far beyond her; his lungs were fighting, the chambers of his heart. And his mind, she thought, of what was that thinking, trapped within him, fated? Was it in harmony, his being, or in chaos, like the people of a falling city?

His throat began to fill. She called the nurse. “Come right away,” she said.

His breath was frightening, his pulse weak. The nurse felt his wrist, then his elbow.

He did not die. He went on with the awful breathing. The effort of it made her weak. It seemed that if only he could rest from it he would be all right. An hour passed. He did not know how he was exhausting himself. It was a kind of insanity, he was running on and on, had stumbled and gotten to his feet again a hundred times. Nothing could stand such punishment.

At a little past five, abruptly, he took his last breath. The nurse came in. It was done.

Nedra did not weep. She felt instead that she had seen him home. She suddenly knew the meaning of the words “at peace, at rest.” His face was calm. It bore a gray ash of beard. She kissed his cheek, his bluish hand. It was still warm. The nurse was putting in his teeth.

Outside, the tears began to run down her cheeks. She walked dazedly. She made a single vow: not to forget him, to remember him always, as long as she lived.

Virtually everything James Salter writes is worth reading, but Light Years is so thrilling and intimate that it rises above the rest of his extraordinary body of work. Highly recommended.