Litstack Recs | Light Years & The Expanse Series

Light Years, by James Salter

First published in 1975, this novel is considered among James Salter’s most enduring. Known for the beauty of his sentences, ones that Jhumpa Lahiri called “so precise, so clean, so fervent and yet so calm,” Salter is the kind of writer whose prose is singular and satisfying to the degree that it can become addictive.

Light Years, his second novel (the first, A Sport and a Pastime, was published in 1967 and a third, All That Is, was released last year), centers on the marriage of Nedra and Viri, a well-educated and chic couple who live in a ranging house by the river outside of New York City. Viri is an architect and Nedra a glamorous, intense woman, a wife and a mother who is creative and inspired—she makes handmade decorations for her children’s birthdays and beautiful dinner parties for their friends. Salter shows us this world as though it is not of this world; a dream, an invention too fine to last, and for me, this is where Salter’s art lies.

“Their life is mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity, it can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one. Within there is no form, only prodigious detail that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight, foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap, insects, silence, flowers. And all of this, dependent, closely woven, all of it is deceiving.”

As captivating as their charmed life seems, the book is, in a way, about unhappiness. For Nedra and Viri, this brand of unhappiness isn’t apparent until it dismantles the time and place of their lives. Salter takes his time to show what Nedra and Viri share: their children, their house, the changing seasons, the chickens in the greenhouse, the dog, the snow, the parties, and the long conversations over drinks or dinner. And eventually, he exposes the deep and contradictory yearnings of love and attachment.

He was reaching that age, he was at the edge of it, when the world becomes suddenly more beautiful, when it reveals itself in a special way, in every detail, roof and wall, in the leaves of trees fluttering faintly before the rain. The world was opening itself, as if to allow, now that life was shortening, one long, passionate look, and all that had been withheld would finally be given.”

Of Salter, Nick Paumgarten wrote in the New Yorker:

Among many writers, and some literary people, James Salter is venerated for his sentence-making, his observational powers, his depictions of sex and valor, and a pair of novels that, in spite of thin sales and obscure subject matter, have more than a puncher’s chance at permanence.

For Salter’s characters, happiness may be a fleeting thing, but the artistry of Salter’s prose is bound to last.

—Lauren Alwan