Empire of the Senseless

A Moment in the Sun BY John Sayles. McSweeney's. Hardcover, 968 pages. $29.

The cover of A Moment in the Sun

John Sayles’s A Moment in the Sun is a multivisaged portrait of our United States at the turn of the twentieth century—time of bully imperialism (democracy exported to Cuba and the Philippines with the aid of Krag rifles), Tammany politics, and Jim Crow. At more than nine hundred pages, Sayles’s canvas is grand, his chosen epoch fascinatingly alien to, not to mention sadly similar to, our own. It’s a brutal picaresque complete with melancholy whores, militaristic robber barons, desperate cutthroat prospectors, and puppet soldiers. Plenty of sorrow to go round!

Of all the novels in the genre of American historical montage, I have always most admired John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, on account of its profoundly realized characters whose birth-to-death vicissitudes unceasingly reshape their circumstances without obscuring the coherences of their unique identities. His people are as alive as it is possible for literary constructs to be. In its first few chapters, A Moment in the Sun reminded me less of Dos Passos than of the middlebrow E. L. Doctorow. Sayles’s characters wear period costumes, say period things, and experience period events, but their psychologies receive merely glancing portrayals. They exist to make a point. Nor is Sayles’s language of the consistently highest order. On one random page, I found the following serviceable but unoriginal phrases: “shouting for action” (said of an “impatient” crowd, of course), “elaborate windup,” “aren’t sure what to make of it,” “a mighty swing,” “grasp the phenomenon,” “dumbfounded reaction.” The town of Leadville, Colorado, is described with middling ingenuity as a “wound” between the Mosquito Range and the Wasatch Mountains—too bad that it has to “fester.” In short, I quickly pegged this novel as an entertainment, sharpened here and there by social satire, but nothing more. I was wrong.

Despite the above-mentioned flaws, Sayles’s style possesses the conspicuous merit of sting. His period slang rings dead-on perfect, as does each jingoistic headline, and his scene setting is detailed and plausible. Like James Ellroy’s, his cynicism can partake of sufficient viciousness to approach the level of poetry. In a certain miserable and dangerous mine, the “damn roof make more noise than a Chinaman in a fish market. . . . The more you wedge it the more it complains.” A Filipino insurgent notes that “we carry one foreign power on our back, while China opens her legs for a dozen.” A newspaperman remarks: “If we keep running these nigger pictures, we gonna run out of ink.”

If you happen to notice a racial theme in the foregoing, why, then, bully for you! Bully, I say, and on to Manila! Because while Uncle Sam is saving the world over there, he’s sure as hell keeping the colored down over here. It is the great achievement of Sayles to illuminate the parallel between imperialism and racism in turn-of-the-century America—indeed, to shine so glaring a light on it that even if we screw our eyes shut, the horror remains. To his further credit, he depicts imperialism’s subalterns not as bad people but as desperate prisoners within the lethal pinball machine of capitalism, which during this period expressed itself through expansionist rhetoric that rarely expanded the opportunities of those it ostensibly served. Hod Brackenridge, my favorite character in the book, gets repeatedly set up and ripped off—in the gold rush, in the mines, in the army. Stopping over with his unit in just-annexed Hawaii, on the way to help gobble up the Philippines, he spies Kanaka children diving for pennies and thinks: “That’s my whole damn life.” A black soldier named Royal Scott, employed on the same noble mission, aspires (you can imagine with what success) to be “just maybe on his way to being somebody in the world instead of a little barefoot nigger whose daddy had a dog’s name.”

This novel is less multistranded than Dos Passos would have made it, but it is certainly far-flung. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call the story bifurcated—between foreign adventurism and domestic repression. In either case, whether one refers to the Spanish-American War or to the reimposition of apartheid in Wilmington, North Carolina, “victory, if the enemy is engaged, is less of a question than the fate of the natives once they are liberated.” And in either case, “the press, the shining jewel of American democracy, is to be the sharp point of the sword.” Oh, what a jewel! A newspaper compositor in Wilmington realizes that black-on-white rape stories are being recycled from other localities—stories so effective that a suffragette cries out: “If it needs lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from these ravening human brutes . . . then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary!”

The Battle of Manila Bay, May 1, 1898, when the US Asiatic Squadron destroyed the Spanish fleet.
The Battle of Manila Bay, May 1, 1898, when the US Asiatic Squadron destroyed the Spanish fleet.

Let Sayles’s own bons mots summarize each of these two plots. When the overseas crusade begins, a black sergeant explains to his troops: “You stuff that first wave of troopers down their mouth so’s they can’t bite no more, and then send in the boys that are gonna survive and pose for the statue.” Meanwhile, our benighted Filipinos imagine that we have come to assist their uprising against the Spanish overlords! Guess what? “‘All you need to do,’ interrupts the American captain, poking Diosdado in the chest with a finger, ‘is have your men put their weapons down and stand aside.’” A Filipino manifesto, “To the Colored American Soldier,” demands to be informed why American blacks are fighting dark-skinned islanders “when at home the whites lynch your brothers in Georgia and Alabama.” Unimpressed, the soldiers remark that “these people just shit out of luck.” And so Royal, Hod, and the rest do as they are told, burning rice fields and rounding up villagers à la Vietnam. Sometimes they torture civilians. After all, no sense in getting attached to the locals! “A little jiggy jiggy is one matter, shipping a googoo in a grass skirt with a gold link on her pointer back to Mom and Dad in Prairie Junction is another.” Their happily-ever-after consists of “a tiny procession of nine dark men carrying a dead soldier across the sun-beaten flatlands of somebody else’s country.”

As for Wilmington, that victory commences thus: “Now, I hear you got a few overeducated niggers up here in North Carolina . . . but if they so smart, they’ll learn to stay clear of the polling places soon enough!” A chapter relating the ethnic cleansing of the city is immensely powerful and provokes the reader’s grief and anger. Here we see the gains of the Civil War undone, and black Americans stamped back down into peonage. The moral of the story recapitulates Hod’s conclusion after watching those Kanaka divers: “You try to get what you can out of life, but only white folks and . . . the educated colored . . . bother to make big plans and expect them to work out.”

Hod is one of those white folks, but we already know that his plans didn’t work out, either. He descends beneath the earth in company with “greenhorns fed to the mines, men from desperate countries who nodded with incomprehension when instructions were given and marched into the drives with every tool they needed to murder themselves and the man next to them. There were deaths caused by the inescapable nature of the job—Bad air.” When Hod gets fired without notice for having been a labor agitator, he points out that he has already worked for three days that week. The boss declines to pay for those days, because “that’s your lookout.”

For the blacks of Wilmington, things really don’t work out. Among them we find, for instance, a certain Dr. Lunceford, who once owned a fancy house and considered his daughter too good to marry Royal. Exiled to New York (and lucky to have escaped with his life), he now sells Dr. Bonkers’s Brain Food door to door, and for extra amusement gets to deliver his daughter’s illegitimate child in an unheated tenement.

Sayles is an exemplar of angry compassion. His corresponding defect is heavy-handedness, as in his relentlessly parodic imagining of a white-power march in Fayetteville, which a Wilmington belle finds “so beautiful” at the exact instant that a horse defecates. It’s as if he distrusts our ability to keep track of his sympathies. His undiscriminating hatred for the ruling class renders its members pasteboard characters. Furthermore, he is addicted to preposterously coincidental meetings and surprise kin relationships (which impressed me in his 1996 movie Lone Star but not here). His story windups sometimes emit a sentimental whiff.

On the other hand, the detailings of various grueling occupations not only read convincingly in and of themselves but also prove yet again that this author possesses a heart. I especially admire Sayles’s attention to his characters’ physical exhaustion—whether hauling an Alaskan prospecting outfit load by load up “The Stairs” (which are chopped into an ice cliff), or drilling to invade Cuba in the hot sun with a heavy Krag rifle in Tampa, Florida, or painting toy soldiers for piecework in a grubby basement. These cameos befit Sayles’s brutal visions of American imperialism and disastrous campaigns of “progress.” After concluding a beautiful description of labor on a cotton press, Sayles reminds us that this is “the same process, the same motions over and over, this is all life will ever have to offer you.”

William T. Vollmann is the author of, most recently, Kissing the Mask (Ecco, 2010).