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Review: 'A Moment in the Sun' by John Sayles a more-than-sprawling historical novel

Two years ago, when John Sayles was having trouble finding a major publisher for his new novel, a hue and cry was heard in some literary and publishing circles. This was, after all, the Oscar-nominated writer-director of Lone Star, National Book Award nominee for the 1977 novel Union Dues, a MacArthur Foundation-certified genius. Surely Sayles' difficulties must have been symptomatic of greater difficulties in the publishing world.

More cynical observers, and I'll cop to being one of them, found Sayles' troubles less astounding. The novel — a 955-page epic criticizing American interventionism abroad and racism at home during the late 19th and early 20th centuries — sounded like a tough sell. Sayles is an estimable but not exactly bankable filmmaker, whose movies, such as Lone Star and Matewan, tend to turn up on alternative newspapers' year-end lists of "the best films you didn't see."

Well, now that McSweeney's has published A Moment in the Sun, I can report that both the novel's champions and detractors had a point. First and foremost, Sayles is a terrific writer. His breathtaking precision and attention to detail can make E.L. Doctorow's historical novels look puny and slapdash. His ability to map the intersections of scores of plots and hundreds of fictional and real-life characters is truly stunning.

A fierce, unapologetic leftist, Sayles is at his best when demonstrating how historic events affect individual lives and also how individuals shape our perceptions and memories of those events. In one of his novel's most gripping story lines, the Luncefords, a well-to-do black family from North Carolina, are all but destroyed by both the war in the Philippines, where Junior Lunceford serves in an African-American regiment, and a racist coup in Wilmington, during which Junior's sister and parents are forced to flee the Red Shirts, a white supremacist group.

In another, Hod Brackenridge, the closest character to a protagonist here, ambles through history, trying his hand at mining, prizefighting, hoboing and soldiering, sometimes in the company of his Indian pal Big Ten, who steals almost every scene he's in.

Niles and Harry Manigault, sons of a racist North Carolina judge, respectively create and re-create history. Niles becomes a lieutenant, extracting a false confession out of a prisoner in the Philippines via waterboarding — Sayles' critique of Bush-era torture policy may seem heavy-handed, but it's also historically accurate. Harry Manigault becomes a silent film pioneer, dramatizing historical events such as the execution of Leon Czolgosz, assassin of President William McKinley.

Both Czolgosz and McKinley are characters in Sayles' novel. So are Mark Twain, a noted critic of American imperialism; Damon Runyon, the author of Guys and Dolls, who served in the Spanish-American War; and Alexander Manly, editor of the Wilmington Daily Record, an African-American newspaper whose offices were burned to the ground by the Red Shirts.

Sayles seems emboldened by the fact that novels, unlike movies, need not be limited by budgetary constraints, but seems to overlook the fact that authors should yell "Cut" sometimes too. As he immerses the reader in the century-old world he has created, Sayles presumes a fair amount of background knowledge.

Perhaps it's not necessary to know anything about, say, the racist legacy of former South Carolina Sen. "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman or Sanford Dole's stint as president of Hawaii or the unemployed marchers of Coxey's Army in order to fully enjoy A Moment in the Sun. But a time line, endnotes or even a list of dramatis personae would be helpful.

While reading A Moment in the Sun I frequently stopped midchapter to educate myself. The fact that the book is fairly easy to put down in order to surf YouTube or Wikipedia is not exactly a strong endorsement of its compulsive readability. Still, for the first time ever, I started lusting after an electronic version of the novel on a super-fancy mobile device. Not just something light and portable, thus obviating the need to lug around a thousand pages, but something crammed full of hyperlinks to images of the myriad locations Sayles references, clips from the silent films he mentions, snatches of the songs he includes, scenes from Sayles' soon-to-be-released film Amigo, which also takes place in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.

Most probably, Sayles intends his novel to be something of a throwback, a hefty, important book with the social conscience of Charles Dickens and the gritty realism of Emile Zola. And at this he mostly succeeds.

But as I toggled between my print edition of A Moment in the Sun and a YouTube clip of a 1901 staged re-enactment of Leon Czolgosz's execution, I wondered if Sayles, much like his pioneering filmmaker, Harry Manigault, has, perhaps unwittingly, created a prototype for a new reading experience at the dawn of digital books: A Moment in the Sun could just be the perfect iPad novel.

A Moment in the Sun

By John Sayles

McSweeney's, 955 pages, $29

Review: 'A Moment in the Sun' by John Sayles a more-than-sprawling historical novel 05/28/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 28, 2011 4:30am]
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