A Moment in the Sun: contender for the Great American Novel

John Sayles's weighty historical tome makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the United States at the turn of the 19th century.

A Moment in the Sun
John Sayles
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One of the underlying factors in the vitality, scope and ambition of US literature is the idea that the Great American Novel hasn't necessarily been written yet. That this is still the case after so many worthy candidates is cause for celebration in itself.

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Weighing in at a little under 1,000 pages, A Moment in the Sun encapsulates the years from 1897 to 1903 from every conceivable viewpoint with tireless compassion and uncompromising realism. It makes a radical contribution to our understanding of an era; it renders visceral and moving familiar motifs and stock characters - boxcar tramps, gold prospectors, card sharps and the last surviving native Indians - breathing new life into a terrain well explored in film and literature. It presents to us the human cost of Manifest Destiny: the contention that America had the God-given duty to be "the propagandists ... not the misers, of liberty" - (these words spoken by an opportunist con man in the Yukon). It is, in other words, a contender.

A renowned screenwriter and director, Sayles began his career writing scripts for Roger Corman B-movies and using his earnings to fund his own projects - a modus operandi he has sustained, acting as script doctor on generic Hollywood fare to make his own more socially aware, challenging movies (among the best being Lone Star and Matewan). This is Sayles's fourth novel, and his first since 1991's Los Gusanos. It combines various past obsessions and interests - the social reality of political decisions; the corruption and hypocrisy of those in power; gambling and boxing - with the storytelling panache of a great filmmaker.

The years in question are host to the peak of the Gold Rush, the white supremacist coup and massacre in Wilmington, North Carolina, (the only time a federal government has been ousted by mob violence), and the United States' first chaotic steps into overseas interventionism in Cuba and the Philippines.

This latter is told partly through the missions of two battalions, featuring characters we've already met in civilian life, and partly through Diosdado, an educated son of a Filipino doctor, recruited as a spy, who spends a fair amount of the novel being smuggled across borders in a banana crate. The crusades are a shambles - masquerading under the aegis of liberation, it is Diosdado who is allowed to give this the lie, once the Americans are flying their flags in Manila: "This wasn't a battle, he realises - it was a show staged by white men. Not a liberation, but a changing of the guard."

Calling A Moment in the Sun an ensemble piece doesn't really do it justice - no character is left unnamed, no back story unexplored. Amazingly, and perhaps understandably given its sheer length, there's no sense of crowding despite the expansive cast. It's as much the story of Hod Brackenridge, the classically down-on-his-luck Minnesotan seeking his fortune and getting bilked on every continent, as it is of Mei, the Chinese girl who escapes the oppression and cruelty of her brothers for slavery in Hong Kong; as it is of Carl Lunceford, the African-American doctor in North Carolina, a pillar of the community, forced to flee for New York with his family; as it is of Judge Manigault, the Wilmington dignitary, his caddish son Niles, who joins the army as a lieutenant after incurring unsustainable gambling debts. While there's no sense of neglecting the wider implications, it's all ground-level, frontline stuff.

As well as the commanding officers and the major players (there are some brilliant cameos from Mark Twain, whose reaction to the wars in Cuba and the Philippines had him branded a traitor, as well as President William McKinley, whose callousness when faced with race riots is chilling), Sayles gives us the newspaper sellers, the cartoonists and the minstrel shows.

The innumerable everyday detritus that adds up to the global or the political; we learn about race relations and the foment of white supremacism in North Carolina from the trash talked by politicians in a barbershop - "We've got them on the police force now" - tolerated, with superhuman forbearance, by its African-American owner; "it is the gentlemen's right to choose their topic, of course, but Dorsey always prefers sport to politics."

Delivered with the filmic urgency of present tense in pitch-perfect free indirect speech, the narrative voice of A Moment in the Sun modulates with every new protagonist. "The thing about the army is when an officer asks your opinion that mean he don't want to hear it."

The writing is so rich and varied that it is hard not to have favourites. Hod, not the protagonist per se, but the first character we encounter, schlepping his way up a hill in the Yukon in an endless line of hapless gold prospectors - is a particular highlight for his good-humoured, Steinbeckian perseverance in an increasingly dire set of circumstances.

The concise chapters mean that we are able to switch from the battle itself to its reductive treatment by the media in copy and headline:

"The art of it lies in what first strikes the eye, and what that in turn stimulates in the mind of the reader. A screaming head is just that - information shouted across the track at a railroad station as the train is pulling out, steam blasting, whistle shrieking, with only the most vital, most incendiary of the words understood."

This reductionism both reflects and magnifies the public spirit, feeding on its own hubris, excusing anything.

What happened in Wilmington, North Carolina, on election day in 1898, for instance, remains an under-represented atrocity. Racial tensions, aggravated by political wrangling, cheap-jack journalism and false accusation, erupted into a full-scale riot in which hundreds were slaughtered. The African-American population, still seen as slaves by the Red Shirts 35 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, were threatened with being shot if they attempted to vote and were eventually hounded out of town.

What Sayles brings out here is a sense that the aggressor always attacks what he detests in himself - the popular dehumanisation of the African-American population of the South (wild, instinctive, uncontrollable) is paralleled with the genuinely animalistic behaviour of the white supremacists.

If this is normally presented (by white writers) as shameful, it's admirable here to see the perspective itself handed over to the subaltern; a subtle but powerful reversal. Before the massacre begins, Jubal, a stable hand and brother to Royal, serving overseas in the military, sees a parade of "white men in red shirts riding through the coloured section of Wilmington, whooping their rebel yells. [ ...] Jubal watches and is careful to avoid meeting the gaze of any of them, knowing how easily they can spook."

Humour appears through even the bleakest episodes, as when it emerges, during an ambush, that the native Indian recruit Big Ten, Hod's friend and companion for much of the novel, is a crack shot.

"Can you see them?" Manigault asks Big Ten.

"Not unless they pop up to shoot at somebody."

Manigault looks to Sergeant LaDuke. "Well?"

"Stick your head out there," LaDuke orders Hod.

Hod gives Big Ten a dirty look.

Gambling, a constant in many countries, is a powerful analogy, underpinning the whole book, providing a gradually sharpening focus on "the ones who got the whole game rigged".

These are simultaneously those who make sure Hod gets paid "in kind" (ie, not at all) for taking a dive in a brutal boxing match, those who recruit double agents and freedom fighters only to switch allegiance when it suits them, and the ones pulling the strings behind interventionist US military policy - "who'd sic the bulls on a sorefoot private soldier if he dared to call at their back door for a drop of water". The marks never have a clue that the odds are false. The infantry think they are fighting for glory, the received notion is one of liberation of a downtrodden people, the introduction of democracy and liberty, but the creation of a new market isn't unwelcome either. "It seems like a great deal iv bother to go to ... to sell a few chape suits," as one Irish recruit observes. This is the world as con, the house always wins.

On top of everything else, the turn of the 19th century is the moment of the birth of cinema - a whole new realm of popular propaganda. While the soldier, Royal, battles with malaria, boredom and exhaustion in the Philippines, his brother, Jubal, is in New York, acting the part of a Filipino insurgent, dodging paper bullets in an early feature. There's a brilliant moment where Harry Manigault, Judge's second son, having moved to New York and taken a job as a cameraman, takes his date, an Irish immigrant named Brigid, to Coney Island: "He can imagine the stock actors who would portray them in a Vitagraph story - a bug-eyed degenerate for him and a man, preferably fat and unshaven and stuffed into a dress, for the Irish maid."

While this presents a painful self-consciousness facilitated by the new medium, Harry also represents its possibilities. Advised to cut the battle scene as soon as the soldiers hit the ground - "No use in being morbid about it" - he cannot help but formulate a shot in his mind, a panoramic vision that would take in the suffering and horror in detail. "There might be some great use, thinks Harry, in being morbid."

It is a novel of exhaustive emotional and intellectual range that deserves to stand on the shelf between Gravity's Rainbow and Gone With the Wind in any non-alphabetised book collection. Sayles's research and knowledge of the time is impressive, but when he wants it to be, the novel is profoundly moving: the brutal deaths and the hard-won reunions; the acts of defiance and/or kindness. A history lesson from a master of pathos.

Luke Kennard's third poetry collection, The Migraine Hotel, is published by Salt.