Brilliant images hold up a wispy tale

Light YearsLight Years by James Salter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Salter is famous for his beautiful sentences, beginning here with “We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked from the wind. This great estuary is wide, endless.”

The opening of Light Years seems to open a world, a very particular world of rough, unyielding nature — river, trees, rocks — and the precarious and unstable marks left by generations of humans, down to the youngest, two little girls who crouch outside the bathroom, urging their story-telling papa (who is soaking in the tub) to come out and tell them more about their pony that, according to him swims to the bottom of the river to eat the onions that grow there.

The little girls grow up, their story-telling father continues telling fables but mostly to himself, while their mother keeps trying out new ways, and new lovers, in a mostly unsuccessful effort to keep herself interested in life. Their pets, including that errant pony, a tailless dog and a turtle, grow old and all but the turtle die, as do some of this family's friends — lots of little events, and some bigger ones, occur over the 15-some "light years," 1958 to about 1973, through which we observe a man and a woman, the parents of those little girls, from their home in rural New York to their work and play in New York City, and then briefly (and separately) to Italy and Switzerland, before each — separately still — returns to the soggy land around that black river, its familiar buildings decayed and newer, unwelcoming ones thrown up as gaudy future ruins.

And that’s about it for the story. No one here is driven by any great, unforgiving ambition, but the man and woman and all their friends move mostly by inertia, nudged along at times by dreams and impulses, which are mostly disappointing when fulfilled. Still, the book is so beautifully written, the people are so believably individual, and the weather and texture and look of the sites so vivid, that it is a joy to read. The opening lines, about the river and the sea birds and its “dream of the past” are as entrancing as the opening lines of García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, but with this difference: the first lines of the latter book — the Colonel facing a firing squad and remembering his childhood — contain the hint of the whole complicated story. In Light Years, there almost is no story beyond the images of different moments in the slow and uncomprehending maturing, or simply aging, of a man and woman as they drift apart and with no common project.

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