You've probably seen it (or something like it) before: A strange, briliant light appears in the night sky over a small midwestern town, and it is viewed by a varied assortment of people, including a ragpicker, a youth gang and their victim, two young people making love out in the fields, a burglar coming back from the VFW Hall with two buckets of coins that he has stolen from the slot machines. Wallace Knight's slim, intricate, often beautifully written novel traces the diverse ways in which each of these people interpret what they have seen, how the experience affects them, and what they finally learn about the experience and themselves.
It may all sound a bit familiar, in outline if not in details, but "Light-struck" is a close encounter of a fourth kind, and its ultimate interest lies in the domain not of science fiction but of philosophy and psychology.
The first, inevitable result of the phenomenon is what always happens when a group of people share an unusual experience; they disagree radically on exactly what it was that happened -- not simply on the meaning and some of the details, but on all of the experience except that it involved a bright light appearing above Buck's Hill:
"It was a brilliant light; it seemed to touch the earth; it stayed only a moment, and then either faded or hustled away, leaving darkness and conjecture, awe, mystery and the sort of excitement that precedes a battle or follows a great mistake. They disagreed, however, on nearly every other point. What its color was will never be decided. Was there nosie? Some said yes and describied metallic clicks and clanks, muffled motors and jet squallings; other said no. There were -- and weren't -- odors. Everyone's story was his own."
Before long, some of the people in town began to call the event "the miracle," and nearly all of those who were closest to it find themselves consciously lying about it, each in his or her own way, for his or her own special purposes. The two notable exceptions are the burglar, Quart Zimmer, who sees the light, hears a sound like machinery and drops dead in his tracks right there on the hill, and Floss Vickerman, ragpicker and religious enthusiast, who "took things as they came, not trying to understand but accepting them."
Quart Zimmer has plenty of opportunities to lie (although he dies at the beginning of the book, he keeps coming back and takes quite an active role), but doesn't; outside of being a burglar, he seems to be basically a very honest person. Floss Vickerman sees the event as a personal visit to her from God, complete with dialogue ("I just came to see you, Floss, to be sure you're okay."), and certainly has no reason to lie about that.
The others all seem to find something else preferable to the truth: the members of the youth gang (the Song of Belial) because they were engaged in criminal activity when it happened; their victim, Jimmy Doe Dewey, because he sees a chance to get revenge and a bit of notoriety; the girl who was making love, Marci Blubaugh, because she is pregnant and thinks it might be interesting to tell people that the father was from outer space.
But even without such deliberate embroidery, as the book progresses, it becomes less and less possible to tell exactly what it was that happened on Buck's Hill, beyond the simple fact of a brilliant, brief flood of light. And it becomes lesls important, as the author makes it clear that his chief interest is not in an unusual event, or even in the characters he brings out so lovingly, each with a wealth of personal eccentricities and a richly anecdotal background. His book is about the nature of truth and the ways we perceive it; he revels in the complications and contradictions that pop up on nearly every page, not only because they make interesting reading but also because they illustrate his thesis:
"Disorder is to life as blood to life, and truth is that understanding. The complexity of truth is merely a measure of the situation on which attention has fallen. The light on Buck's Hill was real.... [it] was a pant of a vast fact. It became a disorderly perception because of its sheer vastness."
In ferreting out the philosophical underpinnings of the story, there is a danger that they may be made too obtrusive. Wallace Knight does not let this happen inhis slim, elegant novel; his ideas are colorfully embodied in a story that is worth reading for its own interest.