The New York Times
A Moment in the Sunby John Sayles
It’s 1897. Gold has been discovered in the Yukon. New York is under the sway of Hearst and Pulitzer. And in a few months, an American battleship will explode in a Cuban harbor, plunging the U.S. into war. Spanning five years and half a dozen countries, this is the unforgettable story of that extraordinary moment: the turn of the twentieth century, as seen by one… See more details below
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It’s 1897. Gold has been discovered in the Yukon. New York is under the sway of Hearst and Pulitzer. And in a few months, an American battleship will explode in a Cuban harbor, plunging the U.S. into war. Spanning five years and half a dozen countries, this is the unforgettable story of that extraordinary moment: the turn of the twentieth century, as seen by one of the greatest storytellers of our time.
Shot through with a lyrical intensity and stunning detail that recall Doctorow and Deadwood both, A Moment in the Sun takes the whole era in its sightsfrom the white-racist coup in Wilmington, North Carolina to the bloody dawn of U.S. interventionism in the Philippines. Beginning with Hod Brackenridge searching for his fortune in the North, and hurtling forward on the voices of a breathtaking range of men and womenRoyal Scott, an African American infantryman whose life outside the military has been destroyed; Diosdado Concepcíon, a Filipino insurgent fighting against his country’s new colonizers; and more than a dozen others, Mark Twain and President McKinley’s assassin among themthis is a story as big as its subject: history rediscovered through the lives of the people who made it happen.
The New York Times
A New York Times Notable Book 2011!
A Chicago Tribune Best Book of 2011.
"[A Moment in the Sun's] true importance lies not in its rearview relevance but in its commitment to recalling in heroic detail a little-known and contradictory historical moment, a sunny time of American pride but also of hubris in sun-beaten locales
Sayles is not a neutral channel, but in his respect for facts both documented and extrapolated, he is devoted to offering us a new understanding of the past."
Tom LeClair, New York Times Book Review
"A brutal picaresque complete with melancholy whores, militaristic robber barons, desperate cutthroat prospectors, and puppet soldiers... His period slang rings dead-on perfect. [Sayles's] great achievement is to illuminate the parallel between imperialism and racism in turn-of-the-century Americaindeed, to shine so glaring a light on it that even if we screw our eyes shut, the horror remains."
William T. Vollmann, Bookforum
“Independent filmmaker John Sayles has managed to create a work that is both cinematic and literary in its scope and stylea blend so entrancing that you could polish off its 955 pages in one long weekend. It begins in 1897 during the Yukon gold rush and takes us into the Spanish-American war, the Filipino fight for independence, racial injustice and the plight of working people throughout the United States. Short, powerful chapters follow four unconnected characters to create a mosaic of America as a nascent superpower, underscoring the personal and cultural consequences of its ambitions. If you only read one book this summer, make it A Moment in the Sun.”
Lucia Silva, NPR’s Morning Edition
“Following four major characters and dozens of sharply drawn smaller ones, Moment jumps from a horse thief’s prison break to a Filipino revolutionary secretly photographing a government execution, creating a story so big that even the larger-than-life characters that Sayles weaves into his narrative are dwarfed by comparison. Pick up McSweeney’s gorgeous mock-leather-and-gilt tometaking care to lift with your kneesand you’ll find that the 950-page book moves far more quickly than its bulk might suggest.”
Sam Adams, The Onion A.V. Club
“John Sayles may be better known as a filmmaker (Lone Star, Eight Men Out, and my favorite, Return of the Secaucus 7) than as a novelist, but this drama spanning five years, and stretching from Cuba to the Philippines, proves him to be a great fiction writer. The conscience that infuses his earlier work is evident in this novel, and if you're looking for a summer reading challenge with a big payoff, this may be your book. Sayles tells a story of American racism and American imperialism at the turn of the century, through a kaleidoscope of imaginary and real-life characters, including Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst and Mark Twain.”
Elizabeth Taylor, Chicago Tribune (Editor’s Choice)
“Sayles is a terrific writer. His breathtaking precision and attention to detail can make E.L. Doctorow's historical novels look puny and slapdash by comparison. His ability to map the intersections of scores of plots and hundreds of fictional and real-life characters is truly stunning.”
Adam Langer, San Francisco Chronicle
“A Moment in the Sun's moment is now, a strapping 935 pages, a sprawling U.S.A.-style novel that, something like the John Dos Passos classic, follows a group of characters in parallel tracks as they traverse the America of 1897, taking in the Yukon gold rush, the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, and the advent of movies. Like all Sayles films and novels, it's drenched in a detailed, loving awareness of time and place.”
“Absolutely vivid... Sayles’s creative strengths are on full display.”
Newsweek/The Daily Beast
"In his most spectacular work of fiction to date, filmmaker Sayles combines wonder and outrage in a vigorous dramatization of overlooked and downright shameful aspects of turn-of-the-nineteenth-century America.
Crackling with rare historical details, spiked with caustic humor, and fueled by incandescent wrath over racism, sexism, and serial injustice against working people, Sayles’ hard-driving yet penetrating and compassionate saga explicates the 'fever dream' of commerce, the crimes of war, and the dream of redemption."
Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
"Though known best as a filmmaker (Eight Men Out), Sayles is also an accomplished novelist (Union Dues), whose latest will stand among the finest work on his impressive résumé. Weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages, the behemoth recalls E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Pynchon's Against the Day, and Dos Passos's USA trilogy, tracking mostly unconnected characters whose collective stories create a vast, kaleidoscopic panorama of the turn of the last century."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Sayles’s cat-squasher of a book... pulls all his characters onto a huge global stage, setting them into motion as America goes to war against Spain and takes its first giant step toward becoming a world power. The narrative is full of historical lessons of the Howard Zinn/Studs Terkel radical-revisionist school, but Sayles is too good a writer to be a propagandist; his stories tell their own lessons and many will be surprises... [A Moment in the Sun is] a long time in coming, with an ending that's one of the most memorable in recent literature. A superb novel.”
Kirkus (starred review)
Noted novelist/director Sayles (Union Dues, 2005, etc.) turns in an epic of Manifest Destiny—and crossed destinies—so sweeping and vast that even he would have trouble filming it.
The year is 1897. As Sayle's cat-squasher of a book opens, a greenhorn arrival at the Alaska gold fields meets a man named Joe Raven, who "is something called a Tlingit and there is no bargaining with him." As so often happens in Sayles's filmic narratives, the native man possesses wisdom that is crucial for survival—but, alas, too few of the Anglo newcomers, sure of the superiority of American civilization, are willing to admit his usefulness. Hod, the newcomer, is assured that American civilization will come through for him: remarks a fellow miner, "Got a steady man in the White House who understands there are fortunes to be made if the government will just step out of the way and let usatem."Holy shades of Ron Paul, Batman. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, a young Filipino, Diosdado Concepción, is preparing himself for battle against the colonizers of his island; he is brash enough that a fellow fighter is moved to caution, "I am a patriot...but not a suicide." Farther away still are two African-American soldiers, Royal Scott and Junior Lunceford, who are discovering just how racist the America of the turn of the century can be. Sayles pulls all these characters onto a huge global stage, setting them into motion as America goes to war against Spain and takes its first giant step toward becoming a world power. The narrative is full of historical lessons of the Howard Zinn/Studs Terkel radical-revisionist school, but Sayles is too good a writer to be a propagandist; his stories tell their own lessons, and many will be surprises (who knew that there were lynchings in Brooklyn as well as the Deep South?).
A long time in coming, with an ending that's one of the most memorable in recent literature. A superb novel, as grand in its vision as one of President McKinley's dreams—but not for a moment, as Sayles writes of that figure, "empty of thought, of emotion."
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Read an Excerpt
A MOMENT IN THE SUNA NOVEL
By JOHN SAYLES
McSWEENEY'S BOOKSCopyright © 2011 John Sayles
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMANIFEST DESTINY
In the drawing Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty stand side by side on the shore. We see them from behind, but know, by their dress, whose pensive vista we are sharing.
There is a breeze coming in, the flame from the Lady's torch, held tentatively at her hip, blowing toward us slightly. The vast ocean stretches before them, and the sun, rays crepuscular on the rolling waves, is only a sliver above the far horizon. Filling the darkening sky above and dominating the page is a question mark.
We are looking west.
We can't see their faces, of course, can't tell if they are seeking adventure, longing for treasure, anticipating unknown horrors. That will come later.
Hod is the first on deck to see smoke.
"That must be it," he says, pointing ahead to where the mountains rise up and pinch together to close off the channel. "Dyea."
There is a rush then, stampeders running to the fore and jostling for position, climbing onto the bales of cargo lashed to the deck to see over the crush, herding at a rumor as they have since the Utopia pulled away from the cheering throngs in Seattle, panicked that someone else might get there first. Store clerks and farmers, teamsters and railroad hands, failed proprietors and adventurous college boys and scheming hucksters and not a few fellow refugees from the underground. Hod has done every donkey job to be had in a mine, timbering, mucking ore with shovel and cart, laying track, single-jacking shoot holes with a hand auger. He knows how to look for colors in a riverbank, knows what is likely worth the sweat of digging out and what isn't. But the look in the eyes of the men crowding him up the gangplank, the press of the hungry, goldstruck mass of them, five days jammed shoulder-to-shoulder at the rail of the steamer dodging hot cinders from the stack, half of them sick and feeding the fish or groaning below in their bunks as the other half watch the islands slide by and share rumors and warnings about a land none have ever set foot on—he understands that it will be luck and not skill that brings fortune in the North.
Though skill might keep you alive through the winter.
"Store clerk outta Missouri, wouldn't know a mineshaft from a hole in the ground, wanders off the trail to relieve himself? Stubs his toe on a nugget big as a turkey egg."
"You pay gold dust for whatever you need up there—won't take no paper money or stamped coin. Every night at closing they sweep the barroom floors, there's twenty, thirty dollars in gold they sift outta the sawdust."
"Canadian Mounties sittin up at the top of the Pass got a weigh station. It's a full ton of provisions, what they think should stand you for a year, or no dice. Couple ounces shy and them red-jacketed sonsabitches'll turn you back."
"Put a little whiskey in your canteen with the water so it don't freeze."
"Hell, put a little whiskey in your bloodstream so you don't freeze. Teetotaller won't make it halfway through September in the Yukon."
"Indins up there been pacified a long time now. It's the wolves you need to steer clear of."
"The thing is, brother, if you can hit it and hold on to it, you float up into a whole nother world. Any time you pass an opera house west of the Rockies, the name on it belongs to another clueless pilgrim what stumbled on a jackpot. This Yukon is the last place on earth the game aint been rigged yet."
If the game isn't rigged in Dyea it is not for lack of trying.
There is no dock at the mouth of the river, greenhorns shouting in protest as their provisions are dumped roughly onto lighters from the anchored steamer, shouting more as they leap or are shoved down from the deck to ferry in with the goods and shouting still to see them hurled from the lighters onto the mudflats that lead back to the raw little camp, deckhands heaving sacks and crates and bundles with no regard for ownership or fragility, and then every man for himself to haul his scattered outfit to higher ground before the seawater can ruin it.
"Fifty bucks I give you a hand with that," says a rum-reeking local with tobacco stain in his beard.
"Heard it was twenty." Hod with his arms full, one hand pressed to cover a tear in a sack of flour.
"Outgoing tide it's twenty. When she's rolling in like this—" the local grins, spits red juice onto the wet stones, "—well, it sorter follows the law of supply and demand." Hod takes a moment too long to consider and loses the porter to a huffing Swede who offers fifty-five. Left to his own, he hustles back and forth to build a small mountain of his food and gear on a hummock by a fresh-cut tree stump, crashing into other burdened stampeders in the mad scramble, gulls wheeling noisily overhead in the darkening sky, little channel waves licking his boots on the last trip then three dry steps before he collapses exhausted on his pile.
When he gets his breath back Hod sits up to see where he's landed. There are eagles, not so noble-looking as the ones that spread their wings on the coins and bills of the nation, eagles skulking on the riverbank, eagles thick in the trees back from the mudflats. He has never seen a live one before.
"They'll get into your sowbelly, you leave it out in the open," says the leathery one-eyed Indian who squats by his load.
"I don't plan to."
"Better get a move on, then. That tide don't stay where it is."
The man introduces himself as Joe Raven and is something called a Tlingit and there is no bargaining with him.
"Twelve cents a pound. Healy and Wilson charge you twice that. Be two hundred fifty to pack this whole mess to the base of the Pass. We leave at first light."
It is already late in the season, no time to waste lugging supplies piecemeal from camp to camp when the lakes are near freezing and the goldfields will soon be picked over. All around them Indians and the scruffy-bearded local white men are auctioning their services off to the highest bidder. One stampeder runs frantically from group to group, shouting numbers, looking like he'll pop if he's not the first to get his stake off the beach.
"That's about all the money I got," says Hod.
The Tlingit winks his good eye and begins to pile Hod's goods onto a runnerless sledge. "Hauling this much grub, you won't starve right away." He tosses a stone at an eagle sidling close and it flaps off a few yards, croaking with annoyance, before settling onto the flats again.
"Eat on a dead dog, eat the eyes out of spawn fish, pick through horseshit if it's fresh. Lazy bastards." Joe Raven winks his single eye again. "Just like us Tlingits."
The Indian wakes him well before first light.
"Best get on the trail," he says, "before it jams up with people."
Hod rises stiffly, the night spent sleeping in fits out with his goods, laughter and cursing and a few gunshots drifting over from the jumble of raw wood shanties and smoke-grimed tents that have spread, scabies-like, a few hundred yards in from the riverbank.
"Any chance for breakfast in town?"
"The less you have to do with that mess," says Joe Raven, "the better off you be."
As they head out there are eagles still, filling the trees, sleeping.
The eight miles from Dyea to Canyon City is relatively flat but rough enough, Hod's outfit loaded on the backs of Joe's brothers and wives and cousins and grinning little nephews, a sly-eyed bunch who break out a greasy deck of cards whenever they pause to rest or to let Hod catch up. Fortunes, or at least the day's wages, pass back and forth with much ribbing in a language he can't catch the rhythm of. Hod struggles along with his own unbalanced load, clambering over felled trees and jagged boulders bigger than any he's ever seen, saving ten dollars and raising a crop of angry blisters on his feet as the trail winds through a narrow canyon, skirting the river then wandering away from it.
"Boots 'pear a tad big for you," says Joe Raven.
The way he has to cock his head to focus the one eye on you, Hod can't tell if the Indian is mocking him or not.
"Might be." He is trying not to limp, trying desperately to keep up.
"Don't worry. By tomorrow your feet'll swoll up to fill em."
Canyon City is only another junkheap of tents and baggage near a waterfall. Hod forks over two fresh-minted silver dollars for hot biscuits and a fried egg served on a plate not completely scraped clean of the last man's lunch while the Indians sit on their loads outside and chew on dried moose, taking up the cards again.
"Gamblingest sonsabitches I ever seen," says the grizzled packer sitting by him on the bench in the grub tent. "Worse than Chinamen."
"I'm paying twelve cents a pound," says Hod. The coffee is bitter but hot off the stovetop. "That fair?"
The packer looks him over and Hod flushes, aware of just how new all his clothes are. "What's fair is whatever one fella is willin to pay and another is willin to do the job for at the moment," says the man, biscuit crumbs clinging to his stubble. "Three months ago that egg'd cost you five dollars. Just a matter of what you want and how bad you want it."
After Canyon City the trail starts to rise, Hod lagging farther behind the Tlingits and thinking seriously about what he might dump and come back for later. There are discarded goods marking both sides of the path, things people have decided they can survive without in the wilderness beyond, some with price tags still attached.
"We maybe pick these up on the way back," says Joe Raven, lagging to check on Hod's progress. "Sell em to the next boatload of greenhorns come in."
A small, legless piano lays in the crook of a bend in the trail, and Hod can't resist stopping to toe a couple muffled, forlorn notes with his boot.
"Man could haul that over far as Dawson and play it, be worth its weight in gold," says Joe, and then is gone up the trail.
The light begins to fade and the Indians pull far ahead. Whenever Hod thinks he's caught up he finds only another group of trudging pilgrims who report not to have seen them. He staggers on, over and around the deadfall, searching for footprints in the early snow. I'm a fool and a tenderfoot, he thinks, heart sinking. They've stolen it all and I'll be the laugh of the north country. It is dark and steep and slippery, his pack rubbing the skin off his back and his feet screaming with every step when he stumbles into the lot of them, smoking and laughing in a lantern-lit circle around the dog-eared cards.
"Another mile up to Sheep Camp," mutters Joe Raven, barely looking up from the game. "Gonna blow heavy tonight, so we best skedaddle."
If he takes his load off for a moment he'll never be able to hoist it again. "Let me just catch my breath," says Hod, holding on to a sapling to keep himself from sliding back down the incline while the Indians gather the rest of his outfit onto their backs.
"You doing pretty good for a cheechako," Joe tells him, adjusting the deer-hide tumpline across his forehead. "We had one, his heart give out right about this section. Had to pack him back to Dyea, sell his goods to raise the passage home. Somewhere called Iowa, they said his body went."
The night wind catches them halfway up to Sheep Camp, and when the sharper at the entrance asks Hod for two dollars to collapse, still dressed, onto a carpet of spruce boughs covered with canvas in a flapping tent shared with a dozen other men, he hands it over without comment.
In his sleep Hod walks ten miles, uphill and with a load on his back.
"We take you to the Stairs, but we don't climb," says Joe Raven as they dump his goods next to a hundred other piles in the little flat area at the bottom of the big slope. "Too many fresh suckers comin in to Dyea every day to bother with this mess."
The last of the tall spruce and alder dealt out yesterday evening, only a handful of wind-stunted dwarf trees left along the trek from Sheep Camp to the Stairs, and now nothing but a wall of rock and snowfield faces them, near vertical, all the way to the summit. There is a black line of pack-hauling pilgrims already crawling up the steps chopped into the ice, and here on the flat ground an ever-growing mob of adventurers crowded around a pair of freightage scales to weigh their outfits before starting the climb.
"Gonna take you a couple days, maybe twenty trips," says Joe Raven, counting Hod's money.
"When I take a load up, what's to keep folks from stealing the rest of my outfit?"
The Tlingit winks. "Anything you steal down here, you got to carry it up."
"But whatever I leave at the top while I'm hauling the next load—"
"You white fellers don't much trust each other, do you?" the Indian grins, then rousts his tribe of relatives with a whistle.
When Hod puts his outfit on the balance it is scant forty pounds.
"Sell you four sacks of cornmeal, twenty dollars," says one sharper loitering by the scales.
"Sell you this yere case of canned goods, beans and peas, for fifteen," says another.
"I got these rocks here," says a third. "You roll em in your bedding, slip em in with your flour and soda, Mounties won't take no notice. Good clean rocks, ten cent a pound."
"You aint that short, buddy," says another man, a stampeder from the look of him, pale yellow stubble on his face and pale eyes, one blue, one green, and pale skin made raw from the weather. "You can pick up twice that weight from what's been cast away on the trip up."
He says his name is Whitey, just Whitey, and that he's from Missouri and has been waiting here since yesterday, searching for a face he can trust.
"The deal with this Chilkoot," he says, "is you always got to have one man mindin the store while the other carries the next lot up, then you switch off. It's simple mathematics."
Whitey shows Hod his own pile, the same goods bought for the same double prices from the same outfitters in Seattle. "One load comes from your pile, then the next from mine. It don't matter who carries what, we both do the same amount of work and both get to spell ourselves at the top while the other climbs. It gets dark, one of us stays up there with what we've carried and the other down here with what's left. We'll get her done in half the time and won't be wore out for the rest of it."
It sounds good enough to Hod. They help each other load up, making packs with rope and canvas and tying on near seventy pounds apiece for the first trip.
"No matter how weary you get, don't step out of line to rest once you're on them Golden Stairs," says Whitey as they nudge their way into the crowd of men at the base of the footpath. "Takes a good long spell to squeeze back in."
They start up, Whitey climbing a half-dozen men above Hod. The blasting cold air and the hazardous footing and the weight on Hod's back drives all thought away, his whole life tunneling down to the bend of the knees of the man in front of him, left, now right, now left, thigh muscles knotting as he follows in step, keeping count at first, step after slippery step, then giving up when the idea of the thousands more ahead proves unbearable.
The first thing left by the stairs is a huge cook pot, iron rusted a different color on its uphill side, that looks to have been there some while. Then wooden boxes and crates, dozens of them, and who has the energy to stop and look inside as the wind cuts sharp across the face of the slope, and next it is men littering the sides of the line of climbers, some bent over with exhaustion or waiting for a moment's gap to rejoin the file, others splayed out on the mountain face with their heels dug in to keep from sliding, helpless as tipped turtles with their pack harnesses up around their necks, weeping.
Excerpted from A MOMENT IN THE SUN by JOHN SAYLES Copyright © 2011 by John Sayles. Excerpted by permission of McSWEENEY'S BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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