Saturday, March 30, 2013

Review: "A Moment in the Sun" by John Sayles

I love reading about the early 20th century on a grand fictional scale. I don’t know what it is about it, but it seems like a very interesting time: things were being invented that would come to define our lives today and radical ideas were coming into fruition. It was a time of great change, as well as great strife, which makes it a perfect subject for an epic 900 page book like John Sayles’ A Moment in the Sun, a sprawling tale detailing a little known conflict that took place between American troops and Filipino revolutionaries that may be the best book that McSweeny’s has published. For a publishing house as offbeat as McSweeny’s, this is probably their most mainstream work, even more so than John Brandon’s mystery novels. This book could easily be a bestseller if it was a given the chance, and it could easily stand alongside Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day in terms of scope, although it is not nearly as readable. Don’t be completely fooled by the offbeat publisher or the sheer size of the book (it is the thickest book I own), it is a challenging read, and asks a lot of the reader in terms of smaller characters that have hundreds of pages between appearances. But all that is something you will get used to if you decide to stick with this book until the end. The main narrative is divided up between four different central characters. We first meet Hod as he is traversing a mountain in the Yukon in search of gold, completely out of his element and just begging to be taken advantage of. We then meet Royal Scott who, along with his brother Junior, are a little to eager to participate in the America’s war with the Spanish, which will eventually lead to the dreaded conflict between America and the Philippines. We go across enemy lines where Diosdado, a spy for the Spanish, prepares for battle and witnesses a brutal execution of a rebel with a device that uses both strangulation and a screw driven in the back of the neck (no one can tell which of these two acts kills the man first). Finally, at about page 150 or so, we meet Harry Manigault, as he, along with his brother, are performing a hilarious yet offensive minstrel show. Over the next 900 pages, we see these four men take quite a journey. From Hod becoming a reluctant boxer and Royal, having to watch helplessly from afar as the life he has built in Wilmington is utterly destroyed by race riots. All the while this conflict with The Philippines is set in motion to bring everyone together to witness the atrocities that occurred in this war, which is the reason it is not talked about very much in history classes. Along the way we meet a few side characters that offer little vignettes like in Dos Passos’ big novel trilogy USA, they serve a higher purpose than just plot trajectory. They exist to give the setting a sense of grandeur it needs to sustain all the ideas in a novel such as this. Although confusing at times (this desperately needed a character list at the beginning), this is one wild ride into the narrow fissures of history I highly recommend you take.
Rating: 5/5

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