Two state executions frame the plot -- and the politics -- of John Sayles's A Moment in the Sun.
The first is carried out behind the walls of the Spanish military compound in Manila. The year is 1896, but the operation is Inquisitional; a petty political criminal is "judicially asphyxiated" via garrote -- that is strapped onto a seat as a metal band is slowly cranked tight around his neck. The few witnesses include soldiers and priests, and Diosdado Concepción, an undercover Filipino nationalist with an Eastman Bullet camera concealed under his coat. The gruesome snapshots will appear in an insurrectionist paper; Diosdado, one of about a half-dozen rash young men at the center of Sun's concentric orbits, is henceforth a fugitive, smuggled in the hold of a banana boat to Hong Kong, and further into history.
Five years and close to a thousand pages later, we arrive at Auburn Prison, New York. The condemned is Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist assassin of U.S. President McKinley (called here simply the Assassin).
The intervening years -- and pages -- witness an American battleship mysteriously blown up in Havana harbor; the American yellow press turning the incident into grist for war and increased circulation; and the American army and navy dealing a devastating defeat to Europe's oldest colonial power, forcing it out of the New World for good. Greeted as liberators, the Americans grant Cuba a dependent sort of independence. They annex outright the other archipelago a decaying Spanish Empire had held since the sixteenth century; nearly won by 1898, Diosdado's Philippine Revolution finds a new oppressor -- one with the vigor and wherewithal to brutally crush the uprising. In 1901, a world's fair called the Pan-American Exposition opens in Buffalo, equal parts valediction for the nineteenth century and hemispheric coming-out party. There, McKinley is shot.
At Auburn, Manila's burly executioner, always a condemned man himself, gives way to a bureaucratic switch-thrower; the medieval garrote to Thomas Edison's electric chair. Another recent Edison invention is banned from the actual proceedings over the Wizard's protestations, but nevertheless sculpts the plot of Czolgosz's demise out of sequences of arriving trains, jockeying reporters, and exterior prison walls. Movie cameras can do that.
Is it fulsome praise, backhanded compliment, or full-frontal sneer to call A Moment in the Sun a book that is, above all else, cinematic?
Such intermodal correspondences are, these days, fraught with a sort of moral indeterminacy. The ancient, or "high," would seem to legitimate the modern and "low": In our ongoing T.V. renaissance, describing a series as novelistic is uncomplicated, fawning tribute. Yet The Wire might revivify Dickens as much as Dickens ennobles The Wire. Calling out a film's formal resemblance to stage drama is sometimes a nod to high-literary pedigree and almost always dismissive -- that is, a visually static work that wastes the innovations of its medium, a movie that fails to move.
The most facilely filmic thing about A Moment Sun is, to be sure, its author. Though he first emerged as a novelist (Union Dues was nominated for a 1978 National Book Award), John Sayles has been for three decades one of the most prolific and genuinely independent of American screenwriter-directors. But this big-screen oeuvre doesn't quite have the bearing on Sayles's new novel, his first since 1991, you'd expect. Compared to the self-contained, low-budget craftsmanship of his many ensemble dramas -- from Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980) to Sunshine State (2002) and Honeydripper (2007) -- Sun is far more movie-like, or at least far more like a certain type of movie: sprawling, wide-screen, Technicolor epic.
The better touchstone might be Sayles's third career -- the one that finances the other two. Quite possibly the only universally respected people in Hollywood, "script doctors" are the handsomely paid (and usually uncredited) narrative mercenaries hired to turn awful genre exploitations into watchable entertainments and solid blockbusters into classics. Sayles has had a hand in E.T., Apollo 13, and (as yet unflimed) Jurassic Park IV, among many others, and there is a Hanks/Spielberg economy to his unfolding of World History as a patchwork of portentous lives.
Though stuffed with meticulously researched historical detail, A Moment in the Sun must be one of the least indulgent thousand-page novels of recent decades. Scenes are never more than a few pages long, and are sequenced for the most decisive "cuts" between perspectives and continents. Neither thematic discursion nor temporal diversion intervenes in the self-logic of these collisions -- which take the form of what the Soviet film theorist Sergei Eisenstein termed "montage." The phenomenological effect is one of a constant, 24-frames-per-second drumbeat, adding up to a nascent American century on the march, for better or worse. Put a cruder way, this is the rare literary novel in which just about every page takes just about the same amount of time to read.
Which is not to suggest artlessness. In his historical films Matewan (1987) and Eight Men Out (1988) -- about a 1920 coal-miners' strike and the 1919 Black Sox game-fixing scandal, respectively -- Sayles captured, without sentimentality, the passage of a certain masculine honor made untenable by twentieth-century economy and culture. Set a generation earlier, before the meaningless mowing down of bodies and chivalries in the First World War, Sun finds the totem of manly stoicism at its apotheosis and, thus, the instant of its eventual demise. Though the argot ranges -- with the characters -- from the back alleys of Manila and the brothels of the Yukon gold rush to an African-American army regiment and one of the South's last post-Reconstruction black middle classes (which will meet the same fate as the Filipinos), the prose maintains the same gruff, muscular meter:
Tampa is a fever dream, a snake swallowing its own tail.
Coop digs and the sand slides in from the sides. He's spent more time with a shovel in his hands than a Krag, something about him that makes sergeants' eyes get big when the shit details are handed out. "You! Cooper!" they say, and he knows it's something down and dirty they've got in mind. The white officers, lieutenant and up, don't even see him, which is a happy news. Coop keeps on digging and the sand keeps filling back in.
Ultimately, the rigor and vigor of this style grinds. If A Moment in the Sun had in fact been made as cinema, it would be many times longer and an order of magnitude more expensive than anything Sayles has ever filmed. (A companion piece, limited to the Philippine–American war, will premiere this summer.) Whatever the medium, grandly emblematic fin-de-siècle epics aren't often models of brevity -- see Bertolucci's oddly reminiscent 1900, some five hours and fifteen minutes long.
But outside the jargon of certain corners of the academy, novels, however cinematic, are still "read" in an active manner films are not. In this regard it is ironically the lack of slack -- the lack of indulgence -- that gives Sayles's novel a certain artificiality. With every event, every page, converging tighter and tighter on History, A Moment in the Sun cries out for more of the prosaic moments -- in both senses of the term -- readers might use to come up for air.
Nevertheless, its ideas, its scope, its narrative assurance remain, far more often than not, breathtaking.
Read an Excerpt
A MOMENT IN THE SUN
By JOHN SAYLES
Copyright © 2011 John Sayles
All right reserved.
Chapter One MANIFEST 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.