An alcoholic father who dismissed him as queer. An emotionally-distant mother who sent him away to boarding schools. A sister who turned him on to psychedelic drugs when he was 12.
Growing up in a tidy New Jersey suburb wasn’t easy for Tucson artist Chris Rush. His memoir, “The Light Years,” captures in luminous prose the innocence and curiosity that marked the young of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. He tells spellbinding stories as he takes the reader through his youth, his travels, his loves, taking and selling drugs, wrestling with conflicted feelings, and his endless search for a center. And he does it in the voice of a young man; he doesn’t give perspective on his life, he puts you right there with him.
“One of my goals in writing the book was to capture the absurdity of that time,” says Rush. “There was a lot of laughter, lots of mayhem. … I did not want to write a book that was breathless and earnest and deep. I just wanted something intense, something wild.”
Published earlier this month, this is Rush’s first book, and the buzz is deafening.
We met Rush, 62, at his Tucson studio, where he paints and writes. A keyboard sits on his desk and the walls are peppered with portraits he has painted. A touch surreal, always compelling, Rush’s art is in museums and collections around the country.
But he has neglected painting as of late. The book’s publication and interview requests from local and national press have been soaking up his time. “My painting feels neglected,” he says.
Rush lowered his lanky frame into his favorite deep-red, high-back chair, stretched his legs and bare feet out before him, and told us about the writing the book, which took 10 years to complete.
THE BOOK’S GENESIS
It was a painting of his father, started before he died and finished six months after, that launched Rush into writing “The Light Years.”
It was a strange piece of art, he says, and he eventually put it away where no one could see it.
“I decided to write about painting the portrait,” says Rush. “Before long, I was writing about a lot of things in regards to my father and my childhood. Before long, it was the main thing I wanted to do. … It became one of my causes to write about home, the past, childhood, often on some mountain incredibly far away. For some reason I could see clearly in that condition. I didn’t have a clear idea I was writing a book, but I knew I was engaged.”
After writing for a few years, Rush decided he had a book. He naively expected it wouldn’t take long to complete.
He left his home in Tucson, rented a place in Ashland, Oregon, and spent two years pounding out the first draft.
“I gave it to a few readers. One of them … said ‘oh, this is prewriting.’ Eight years later I realized she was probably right — I was passing through the veil.”
The book underwent three major revisions before he felt he could let it go.
DREDGING UP PAINFUL MEMORIES
Rush is unsparing in the rich details of his youth: An often-drunk father who once pointed a gun at his head, the copious amount of drugs he took and sold, the men who were bent on killing him before he jumped out of their speeding pickup, the rejections from his mother, the bullying he suffered.
“There’s a strange virtue in waiting 40 years to write something,” says Rush. “Though the writing was at times emotional, I was not driven to write for emotional reasons. I had already gotten through whatever anger and sense of revenge and confusion that I lived through.”
And he discovered he’s pretty resilient.
“As I say in the book, I had no idea how tough I was,” Rush says. “I was the sissy boy of the family, I was a delicate little thing. At 13 I was 6-foot-2. I discovered along the way I was pretty tough. I made some very peculiar decisions, but I was tough. I saved myself from the brink more than once. And there’s always grace and I had luck.”
Most have spotty memories of long-ago years. Not Rush.
“I was fortunate. The two years I was in Oregon, almost specifically all I did was write down everything I could remember, whether it seemed relevant or not,” Rush says. “Memory is very holographic; you walk through one door and there’s another door. I spent thousands of hours just traveling through my memory, and there was much more there than I realized.
“Once I had some grasp of the events and had written down what I knew, I started doing interviews with my family and those people who passed through the pages. That’s when I realized my mother had saved far more material than I imagined. She had saved my correspondence from that period. … This was extremely helpful. And I had a few interviews that were mind blowing, but for the most part my interviews had confirmed that I had remembered everything close enough to proceed.”
His 92-year-old mother has “an extraordinary memory,” and Rush says she played a big part in pulling the book together.
“She had the greatest role in helping me examine events that I experienced as a child but she had experienced as an adult,” he says. “I did get some perspective there. It was my cause, though, early on to write more or less in the mind of the child as things were happening. The events speak for themselves and I wanted to be as much in the present moment as I could.”
WHAT HE DISCOVERED
“There were uncertainties I had at the beginning of the book,” says Rush. “I’m not sure I’m any more certain, but particularly in looking at my father, who was a rather intense character, he was very private. He confided in no one. ... He was big, there are tall tales about him, but very little emotional record.
“I had a great deal of trouble, at first, accessing my father’s inner life. By the end of the book, I did see some things that I had never really imagined before. ... I see him as a father now. I see his struggles. He was the rock of the family, and he was also far too hard. I saw his guilt and his shame and his reticence and his embarrassment, and his silence became something different. I always thought he was angry with me, but now I see how much his sadness made him who he was.”
He also got a different perspective on his parent’s marriage.
“I always thought my mother was married to my enemy because I did not like my father,” Rush says. “They had a dangerous romance. I believe my mother loved my father more than she loved her kids. There were so many dramatic betrayals, difficult, incendiary arguments and the kids, we were the audience. Now I realize my parents were madly in love with each other. Mad for each other. Though my childhood was peculiar, and maybe my parents weren’t great parents, but it was a dangerous romance. So I suddenly saw my parents as lovers. Oh my God, it all made perfect sense and I very much found a way to respect their recklessness.”
Rush says he’ll get back to painting. And he’ll keep on writing.
“This (book) should have tired me out, but it did the opposite. I want do so much more,” he says.
Does that mean a sequel?
“Yes, though it was never the plan,” Rush says “What happened next is I moved to New York City, worked as a designer for years, fell madly in love, and then circumstances sort of chased me out of Manhattan. It’s a good story.”