Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Sunburn.

The first thing I have to say about John Sayles' Moment in the Sun is, damn, don't carry this thing around unless you lift from the knees. This is not a take-on-the-subway kind of book. This is a doubles-as-a-doorstop-and-deadly-weapon kind of book. This is the Novel Most Likely To Put You In Traction of 2011. Sun clocks in at about a thousand pages. I checked it out of the library, gave up when I realized I couldn't haul it around, and got the Kindle edition. But the book itself is beautiful.

Sayles is better known as a director than an author (Matewan and Lone Star are only two of his many films).

So. What is Moment in the Sun about? Dang, son, what's it not about? It's set during the Spanish-American War (quick primer: we showed up in the Philippines to "liberate" the Filipinos from the Spanish, then were hugely douchey, refused to leave, and committed a lot of atrocities ((like waterboarding!!)), and covered it with a heapin' helpin' of White Man's Burden, liberally sauced with racism. Sound familiar? Also, Teddy Roosevelt.)

But, while being about the Spanish-American War, Moment in the Sun also touches on corrupt politics, election violence and lynchings in the American South, the deplorable conditions in the cities in the North, the insurrectos movement in the Philippines, human trafficking from China, muckraking press, the beginning of the motion picture industry, how much obstetrics sucked in the late 1800s, the gold rush in the Klondike, American policy towards Native Americans (horrible), unemployment and labor abuses, labor unions, and also throws in a chunk of perspective from none other than Mark Twain himself.

I got tired just writing that.

It's hard to write a handy summary of Moment in the Sun, since so much is going on at once. The storyline jumps around from New York to North Carolina to China to the Philippines and back again, and it can get exhausting.

Moment in the Sun opens in the rush to get to the Yukon, where Hod Brackenridge, a former miner blackballed after participating in a strike, finds himself swindled and abandoned. He ends up in a freezing gold rush town, a place of surreally inflated prices and quick violence, where he becomes a boxer in crooked fights orchestrated by a dandy ne'er-do-well from North Carolina, Niles Manigault.

Niles' hometown, Wilmington, is a cauldron of seething racism and violence, crusted over with a layer of that famous Southern gentility. Niles' father, Judge Manigault, presides over Wilmington with a stiff upper lip and a South-will-rise-again ethos, although he can't control his dashing, irresponsible son (and his other son, Harry, is a limping, shy disappointment).

In Wilmington, we meet the Luncefords (Dr., Mrs., daughter Jessie, son Junior), an upper-middle-class family of African Americans. Junior decides to join the Army and talks his friend, Royal Scott, into joining him. Royal has a desperate, unrequited crush on Jessie, a crush that he's pretty sure will never come to fruition.

Junior and Royal join in the 125th Infantry, where they have the dubious distinction of testing out bicycles as a means of transport (verdict: ouch.). Second-class citizens at home because of their color, Junior is nevertheless hopeful that the Army will provide a chance to show his patriotism.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, Diosdado Nicasio, the son of a wealthy plantation owner, joins his university friends in pledging to the cause of Filipino independence.

These characters converge in the jungles of the Phillippines, where Junior and Royal are sent. Hod, joining the Army in desperation with his friend, a Native American nicknamed Big Ten, ends up in the Philippines too, along with Niles Manigault, who in one of those Twists of Fate tm ends up as Hod and Big Ten's lieutenant (and he's a giant douche and also possibly going insane).

Back in North Carolina, the violence comes to a head with an election day riot. The Luncefords, losing everything, head North to the city and poverty. Niles' brother Harry has already ended up there, where he's helping usher in the age of moving pictures.

If I had to say what I thought Moment in the Sun was really about, it's about power and the abuse of power, and the desperate and often violent fight against it, a fight that plays out in the Philippines and the tenements and the rural South and in prisons.

Sayles leaps from perspective to perspective and locale to locale, and while some of these shifts are inventive (a short chapter from the point of view of Mark Twain stands out in particular), some of them are distracting (the persistent return to "Teethadore," a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator, and an interlude in a prison where McKinley's assassin Czolgosz is jailed). There's simply so much research poured into this book that it becomes dizzying, and at points I wished that it had been pruned, not for length's sake but for clarity.

Many of Sayles' characters are richly and fully imagined, but it becomes hard to become very invested in any of them. I had a particular difficulty with his female characters. While Junior, Scott, Hod, Big Ten, Sergeant Jacks, Niles, and Henry are three dimensional and complex, Sayles' women seem to be used more as prop devices and are flatter and simpler and seem to conform more to a trope. There's a plucky Irish scrubwoman, a Filipina who pops up long enough to fall in love with and liberate Royal, a Chinese prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold, a Yukon prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold, and a handful of other rather forgettable characters that seem more like embellishments than necessities which Moment in the Sun could have easily done without. Sayles also has a habit of abandoning characters, probably because there are just too darn many of them.

But. But! Wade through Moment in the Sun and be rewarded - it is a beast of a book, but daring and audacious in its scope.

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