Review: A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles


Kevin Riordan


A Moment in the Sun

By John Sayles
(McSweeney's, 2011)

Reviewed by Kevin Riordan


I have been looking for a frame for the placement of John Sayles in respect to his mountain of a novel; writers of trilogies (which this could be considered, structurally) and film directors who dabble in fiction, not unlike Neil Jordan, Ethan Coen, Bruce Robinson, offer possibilities. In the end I have to say if Studs Terkel was actually studly, and had applied himself to the novel, there would be strong similarities. The book is supported by an elaborate website courtesy of the visually inventive, groundbreaking publisher McSweeney’s, cataloging hundreds of historic photos, newspaper headlines and cartoons, and documents, revealing that some obscure persons you might assume were wholly fictitious actually existed.

Sayles is a master of the well balanced scene, where the action is moved along fluidly through varied characters whose voices are distinct enough not to require constant attribution, and through crises whose resolution always seems to grow more impossible. He succeeds in bringing history out of the mothballs and posturing of winners, and tells it through the mouths of the grunts, military and otherwise.

The story commences in 1897 and the greater part of its characters are from Wilmington, North Carolina, a deeply conflicted city of the old Confederacy whose disgruntled politicians have found themselves under an African-American mayor and Police Chief, and decide that the electoral process has failed them and needs correction. In addition to scores of other figures, we follow the trail of  two pairs of brothers, black and white, from that town through its infamous massacre and on into our wars against Spain in Cuba and the Philippines , where another pair of brothers are deeply involved in one insurrection then another. Sayles has made entire films in mixed languages, and he is deliberate in every phrase, but the passages detailing these exploits are so laden with non-English words that you might be forgiven for skimming a bit; on the whole there is always propulsion, every new chapter puts us in more interesting and dire territory.

The book opens with the often aliased Hod Brackenridge, a hard luck prospector in the  gold rush Yukon, who also has a penchant for boxing; his experiences in the ring, in mines, beet fields, and road building all illustrate the bitter relations between bosses and those under them. We also get detailed accounts of such workplaces as a turpentine camp, a movie set, a factory for the disposal of dead horses, sweat shop for the making of tin soldiers and a cigar making loft. One chapter takes us to Auburn prison where Leon Czolgosz is to be executed in a very early electric chair. The soldiers' life of the era, particularly in the 25th, an all colored regiment that fought on both fronts, is the workplace that is most vividly imagined. The book displays the kind of research that is becoming a lost art in the age of search engines, with telling details and perfectly delivered slang. There are also song parodies that comment on the day, surprising examples of a survival of oral folklore.

Among the recognizable persons we encounter are Mark Twain, President McKinley and his assassin, Bat Masterson, and a young Damon Runyon, whose account of  a pugilistic bout in a Manila army camp is as much like a long lost yarn of the Bard of Broadway as you could wish for. We follow a celebrity impersonator who resembles Teddy Roosevelt. We also get parts of the picture from political cartoonists of the day, conveying the unmitigated gall of our newest protectorates to be less than thrilled. The Yellow Kid and other newsboys convey their own desperation to have fresh headlines to peddle, a conscientious compositor tries to correct his boss about the obvious implausibility of a race-baiting news item, and even stage Irish and 'coon'  comics add their perspective to keep us informed.

Although known primarily as an Oscar nominated director, with his 17th feature film opening this fall (in cities with a large Filipino population), Sayles has also done many other jobs in and out of film and has set the standard for independence from studios. That new film, Amigo, shares the setting of part of this novel, but concerns itself with another set of people.  If he wants to make a movie, he does and if he wants to write a book, that's what happens; it must have seemed a luxury to expand the story far beyond what would fit in 90 minutes, and to include places from the past that would be prohibitive to reproduce, like the Pan American convention or early Coney Island. His writing career alone is incredibly varied, including scripts for Roger Corman's schlock titles and an Edgar award winning 1990 TV show; his 1977 novel Union Dues was nominated for the National Book Award. He deserves it again.

The range of this book is so great that no single religion casts its shadow over it, but when a demoralized insurrectionist turns in his rifle for 30 pieces of silver, the cosmic betrayal of it resonates. He is skillful at showing just the right degree of intersection between story lines, and a satisfying number of the threads are eventually taken up and tied, but I couldn't help recall the opening lines of William Gaddis' A Frolic of His Own: “Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” The theme of social injustice runs through all of Sayle’s work, but he avoids the indulgence of making everything come out alright in this late Victorian saga of American empire building. Starting from the high point of post Civil War racial parity just before it dissolves, there is nowhere to go but down, but for the resilience of the individuals who, as Studs would say, take it easy but take it.