My Favorite Sentence of the Year
Beneath the pinholed heaven, the night was God-dimensioned and monumental before electric light.
Before you keep reading, sit with this sentence. My words will wait.
Quiet what internal noise you can. Let your eyes trace the consonants’ loop and lean; let the words tilt your head heavenward.
Then try to read it with your eyes closed.
I began this sentence as myself, nearly three-quarters through Niall Williams’ 2019 novel This is Happiness. I ended it changed. Out of context, it reads as poetry; within its native story, the sentence feels like ancient truth turned inside-out and laid gently within the modern world.
This Is Happiness houses two main characters—one comes of age across its pages, the other restores his youth. A man named Christy blows through the already weather-beaten Irish town of Faha. Residents of the bone-damp village would no doubt stop singing along with the pop standard after “Come rain,” not quite comprehending “or come shine.”
Pacing itself through the middle of the 20th century, Faha still operates without electricity. Christy arrives, ostensibly, to plug the place into the modern age. Yet another, life-defining light draws him—the Faha woman he’s pined for since their parting decades ago.
As he helps residents dot i’s, cross t’s and embrace the thought of living within the gleaming, Christy drafts an apprentice, teenaged Noe. The older man first irritates, then impresses upon the younger. Existing as everything Noe isn’t—in volume and confidence, in having any history to speak of—Christy coaxes the boy toward his truest self.
I am predisposed to lose myself in a vocabulary of electric lights and God-sized nights. The language of light and dark nearly always catches my eye. Especially in the Bible. Not so much in terms of sin and virtue, presence and void—though those forces compel me well enough.
I revel in physical descriptions of God interrupting darkness. A verse like Psalm 97:4 (“His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles”) sounds like judgement, but feels like mercy to me. A certain benevolence attends this show of glory; the divine contrast keeps me coming back and coming alive.
I honestly prefer the dark. Night hours, indigo music, the stillness of an unlit room. Without reciting the words of Leonard Cohen, tempting as it is, this is where we experience the light. In notes of recognition and flickers of hope against the musical gray; in lightning which shows the true extent—and beauty—of a storm.
Despite all the muted sorrow, all the muddling through this season brings, simple Christmas lights rearrange and recharge my soul. Pure white bulbs warm the world beneath coal December skies, mimicking God’s activity as well as any human being could.
Williams brokers unity between different types of light; This is Happiness hangs on characters discovering inner brilliance. Despite his wandering and groping, the light inside Christy never falters; he helps Noe recognize the same warmth in himself. Standing before the object of his affection in a late scene, Noe is all aglow:
“All of me knelt down. All of me bowed. Inside the chapel of myself, all my candles lit.”
Ask about chickens and eggs if you must. Was the light always inside Noe, dimmed but waiting? Did Christy leave a lantern within the boy? Williams never bothers to say. He only observes the evidence and draws his conclusion. There is a light inside each of us; once it’s on, it never goes out.
“Maybe I didn’t know it then, I’m pretty sure I didn’t,” Noe thinks. “Didn’t know that there are times in a life that pass but retain a gleaming, which means they never die, and the light of them is in you still.”
The light switched on within me as a kid in Arizona where, unlike Faha, the rain almost never comes. I remember the shine as a series of moments.
Driving down McKellips Road, Jimmy Eat World on the stereo, lifting my eyes to the streetlights and asking Where does my help come from? Squirming within a pew and a particular strain of evangelicalism, yet still enough to bask in the Psalmists and the prophets. Looking out across any number of crowded rooms to see the way “light attaches to a girl,” as Adam Duritz perfectly put it.
Christy teaches Noe that grace is more disruptive and shocking than any four-letter word could be; grace is more powerful than music or friendship or desire because it is threaded through all those things.
Adjusting my eyes to the light, and learning it fears nothing from the darkness, I see it too. When the rain lifts and the dark subsides, we slowly align to reality. Living coram Deo, before the face of God, comes with more possibility than burden.
I need to stop reading this sentence, my favorite one I read all year. God save me if I start to diagram it. Once, a respected songwriter told me he never wishes to learn Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” Plunging into its heart and practicing its changes would strip away its magic, he feared.
Williams’ sentence is “Thunder Road” to someone like me, someone who longs to write canopies of light and dark, whose words bend toward the wonder and mercy we glean from other human beings. Besides, Springsteen also wrote “Dancing in the Dark” and “Brilliant Disguise” and “You’re Missing.” On the same record as “Thunder Road,” he delivered “Born to Run” and “Jungleland.”
The rest of This is Happiness sings too. In one passage, Williams describes “a series of luminous veils ... made of cloud, but not called cloud in Faha, because clouds there were the colour of hammered horseshoes and old bruises and these were joined in one continuous stretch without variants.”
As light spreads to every room inside Noe, Williams grants his young character “a first understanding that, contrary to science, the heart expands more than it contracts.”
And an older version of Noe looks back from the final pages, lending lessons from a heart that never stopped expanding, an antennae ever tuning to the divine hum.
“You live long enough you understand prayers can be answered on a different frequency than the one you were listening for,” Williams writes.
Some kids read beneath the covers, learning to see by flashlight. Williams calls readers to sit with him beneath the pinholed heaven. The electric light of his prose never competes with the luminous divine; rather it calls us to marvel that we share in the light at all.