I shop at thrift stores for everything except underwear and books. The former needs no explanation; the latter reveals some snobbery. Thrift store bookshelves are crowded with ragged Reader’s Digest editions and the type of mauve-jacketed women’s fiction that serves as a force field to keep me away. I have no problem pawing through aisles of sweaters in an obsessive hunt for cashmere, but I wouldn’t be caught dead searching the bookshelves.
That was all well and good until I spied a copy of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union among the Maeve Binchy at the San Leandro ThriftTown. The unmistakable turquoise and red cover caught my eye while I was in the checkout line, and, while I have already read that lovely book, seeing it over there triggered a doubt about my dismissal of thrift store book sections. Who donated Michael Chabon to the thrift store? What other treasures might be out there? On my next trip to ThriftTown I went straight to the book section.
My most recent foray yielded James Salter’s 1975 novel, Light Years. In typical thrift-foraging fashion, I noticed the Salter book first because of the color of the spine, a soothing creamy yellow. I then had a vague positive feeling about James Salter…perhaps I had read something by him? Had he been quoted by someone else in an epigraph? I picked up the book. I think what clinched the purchase was the fact that the paperback edition had a dust cover. Cool.
At first it would seem that Light Years was a miss. It considers the lives of very beautiful people, and they are too refined, too delectably gourmet, too alien in their Westchester country home, too perfectly lovely, smart, and tantalizing. They spend too many summers in Amagansett, and they indulge in too many affairs. They are Nedra, her husband Viri, daughters Franca and Danny, Jivan (Nedra’s lover), Marcel, Kaya (Viri’s lover)…on and on in an unwinding spool of linen, expensive wine, drives to the country, delicate frowns, and highly educated angst. I mean, come on! These characters seem totally exempt from a mundane existence, and so they are irritating. Or maybe they just make me feel gauche.
Strangely enough, after about a hundred pages, I was taken in. The lives of Nedra and Viri, she the untouchable beauty, he the average architect, entranced me, and the reason is because the book is written very lightly (as the title explicitly states). I do not mean it is lighthearted or flimsy. There is darkness in these characters, and plenty of it. But Salter chooses to remain in the realm of their lightness, so that their darker sides, while barely explicitly considered, come through with a graceful poignancy, in sentences like this: “Their friends that year were Marina and Gerald Troy.” Their friends come and go; they are annual trends in an unending pattern of covetousness. Throughout, the book reminded me of Italo Calvino’s essay on lightness in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, in which he says in reference to Ovid, “…everything can be transformed into something else, and knowledge of the world means dissolving the solidity of the world.”
Salter’s achievement in this novel is his employment of a subtle first-person narrator whose presence establishes a graceful distance between the reader and the characters. That distance is plenty of room for Salter’s assured, omnisciently-leaning observations, which work in concert with an almanac-like movement through time and the seasons.
Salter’s prose is unhurried and unabashed in its repetitive, short declarative sentences. It is hypnotic, with its predictable rhythms and endless catalogues of the accoutrements of New York mid-twentieth century aristocracy. And while you may, like me, roll your eyes more than once at the angst of the very privileged, and marvel at how, exactly, to stay engaged with so many scenes of people lying on beach towels, seemingly able to take every summer entirely off (and use it to ponder their existences), in the end the book is, well, as delicious as an hors d'oeuvre of cold meats and French cheeses. A main course it is not. Here’s a short excerpt:
“She had trimmed the stems of flowers spread on the wood of the counter and begun to arrange them. Before her were scissors, paper-thin boxes of cheese, French knives. On her shoulders there was perfume. I am going to describe her life from the inside outward, from its core, the house as well, rooms in which life was gathered, rooms in the morning sunlight, the floors spread with Oriental rugs that had been her mother-in-law’s, apricot, rouge, and tan, rugs which though worn seemed to drink the sun, to collect its warmth; books, potpourris, cushions in colors of Matisse…clear crystal dice, pieces of staghorn, amber beads, boxes, sculptures, wooden balls, magazines in which were photographs of women to whom she compared herself. Her dreams still cling to her, adorn her; she is confident, composed, she is related to long-necked creatures, ruminants, abandoned saints. She is careful and hard to approach. Her life is concealed.”