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Everybody must get stoned

by Tim Pfaff

"The Light Years" author Chris Rush. Photo: Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux
"The Light Years" author Chris Rush. Photo: Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux  

Heavy readers know that there are few pleasures greater than happening on a fine piece of writing that is not trying to be writerly. In the part of his life that begins after the events chronicled in his new book "The Light Years" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Chris Rush has become known as a painter. With no intention of gathering them let alone publishing them, Rush wrote things about his experiences, fragments mostly — scraps that have now come together in one of those books that had to be written.

Its features are hardly unfamiliar in the realm of gay memoir, but there's nothing common about this one. Readers like me will find deep resonances in Rush's story, even though its particulars, which few people could have survived, offer only occasional direct correspondences and parallels. Readers who came into queer consciousness in the American post-Summer of Love 60s and 70s should brace for frequent shocks of recognition.

So there are drugs. The author tallies he took some 250 varieties of them before the predictable near-death OD and his less-predictable lucking into sobriety. If you're susceptible to contact highs, plan your reading accordingly, but this is far from "that old story again."

And there is a floridly dysfunctional family, at the eye of whose storm is Dad, a successful contractor and chronic alcoholic whose one shaky, soon failed scrape with A.A. only confirms him as a lush for life. He's so unpredictable his family can't even count on his drinking bouts becoming rages. He's the king of chaos on a family chessboard all of whose pieces are, if somewhat freer in their movements, as inevitably mated.

Of course all his gangly, effeminate son wants is his father's love. The closest he gets to it is recounted in Rush's epilogue "The Portrait," in which he paints his father's portrait the only way that works, by having the cancer-ravaged, near-wet brain sit for him, slumped in a chair, coaxed into smiling, only occasionally and vaguely complimenting his son's work. Rush's mother finds the painting frightening, but "I recognize him," the author writes. "He is my father."

It's said that C.G. Jung, in his single-session treatment of Bill Wilson, the founder of A.A., called alcoholism a low-level search for god. Such is Chris' search, spiritual and high-minded if relentlessly high.

Extended family members — vividly drawn characters who change before your eyes — teach him the route out of the New Jersey nightmare by way of drugs. Because Jesus — and, along the way other higher powers, including UFOs and their avatars — are part of the teaching, Chris is raised to stick with pot and LSD, the chancier drugs beyond their gateway deemed death-dealing "poisons." In no time and for a long time Chris is doing and dealing both.

He acts out his emotional homelessness (he is cast out, too, more than once) by drug-fueled travels across the country, mostly hitchhiking in an orbit around Tucson and the Western mountains. Here is writing at its purest and most original, about being overwhelmed by the Grand Tetons: "Peaks so violent, so vertical, they opposed reason. They were monsters, shredding the clouds with their fangs."

Eventually, if not inevitably, the pure drugs become a gateway to speed, cocaine (swallowing a rock of which almost kills him) and heroin. Mind-altering substances wreak havoc with his budding sexuality, in ways only including tamping down his libido. The on-again, off-again relationship that most qualifies as positive is with a woman, Julia. But his fantasies about other males are as compelling as any hallucination, if as little reflected in reality. At their center is a truncated, if at intervals all-consuming, relationship with a boy named Owen.

They help each other discover sex, including its mechanics, and become uninhibited lovers soon separated by their families. Chris sees their last meeting as a reunion, but Owen, now with a girlfriend, regards it as the end of their sexual relationship for good. After a night of frenzied sex, Chris attempts a morning reprise, what with Owen still showing hard. Owen's sharp response comes in a series of devastating one-liners: "What did I tell you? No more. Don't ever touch me again." "[I came here because I just] felt sorry for you." "Get way from me." "Stop begging. You're disgusting."

The problem with most drug stories is that they are fundamentally boring by dint of the numbing, endless repetitions involved in addiction. What makes Rush's compelling is his unflagging consciousness of his actions, even at their most depraved. Getting off drugs gets him his life back, but what gets him off drugs, besides hitting bottom with them, is his willingness to walk up to grim situations, repeatedly, and go right through them, eyes however bleary and heart however stricken, open, dodging nothing.

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