Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Moment in the Sun

by John Sayles

I know before I even begin to write about this book that my skills are nowhere near adequate to the task of expressing how much I have loved reading this book.  John Sayles has written a sweeping (and rather damning) gigantic (955 pages) novel about America in the closing days of the 19th century - a time of imperialism, racial conflict, greed, and somehow, optimism.  The book is mammoth, having more in common with a cinder block than anything else on my bookshelf (except perhaps the work of William T. Vollmann), with an equally long list of characters that I came to have great affection for.

If this book were to have a geographical centre, it would be Wilmington North Carolina, the place where most of the characters began their lives.  Much of the early parts of the book are set there, until what amounts to a white supremacist coup sends most of the black, and many of the white characters out of the town.  While the heart of the book is Wilmington, the story also takes place in the Klondike, Cuba, the Philippines, New York, Colorado, Texas, and a lot of other places.  Among the topics covered, the reader is given a grounds-eye view of America's war with Spain (played out in Cuba and the Philippines, the latter also the sight of a protracted guerrilla insurgency by the people the Americans 'liberated'), the Gold Rush, the newspaper industry, including how political cartoons were crafted, New York sweatshops, the mining industry, the birth of the motion picture industry, the plight of Chinese prostitutes in Japan, the New York dead horse removal industry, Filipino resistance, and the execution of the man who assassinated President McKinley.

Sayles never glosses over anything in this book, preferring to stop and explore a new element to the story to his satisfaction.  When the character of Mei, a Chinese washerwoman working at a hospital in the Philippines is introduced, Sayles spends fifty pages exploring her past, which began when her mother decided not to have her feet bound.  When the assassination of McKinley happens, Sayles introduces Shoe, a prisoner at the prison where the assassin, Leon Czolgosz, is held.  Shoe gets around forty pages of the book to himself, despite the fact that the novel is almost over.

I can see where things like this could annoy some readers (I think there are probably thirty central characters in this book), but I love it.  These digressions made the book ever more rewarding to read, as they helped Sayles achieve his goal of portraying as rich and full a snapshot of that time and place as possible.

Reading a book like this, it's hard to not look for parallels to the America of today.  I think that there are many easy comparisons to make between the US in the last decade of the 19th century with the America that began the 21st.  There are the same wars fought for dubious reasons which turn into protracted insurgencies, and the same pompous belief in personal and national infallibility.

I've spent the last couple months with this book (it being something to savor and not devour), and know that I'm going to miss many of these characters a great deal.  While working to portray such a broad portrait, through his comfortable prose, he made many of these characters people that I began to care about.  This is an incredible novel.  I only hope that Amigo, Sayles's new film, which I believe serves as a companion to this book, plays in Toronto.

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