Sayles of the Century

While Dean, Lorraine and I spend a fair share of our time reading, examining, and working with great comics from our past, we don’t focus exclusively on comics. Like you, for pleasure we watch movies and television offerings, we read magazines and books, and every so often in this space we pause to tell you about Really Impressive Work You May Wish to Explore (use the “search” feature on our “Blog” page to look up our ballyhooing of pioneering television comedian Ernie Kovacs, for example).

Today I’m touting a mammoth novel I just finished reading, one that is not just the best novel I’ve read in the past year, it just may be the best novel I’ve read in the past decade … and it was written by one of my very favorite motion picture directors, to boot.

The author is John Sayles. The novel, clocking in at an impressive nine hundred fifty-five pages (yes, 955!), is titled A Moment in the Sun. You can see the author and his cover below (the elaborate typography on that cover was the thing I liked least about the book).

1_Sayles & Moment

I have followed Sayles’s directorial career from its outset. He got his start as a writer on low-budget quickies like Piranha and Alligator (I missed those), but then went on to direct his first feature, Return of the Secaucus 7, released in 1980. Having read its good notices in reviews by Pauline Kael and others, I attended a screening when it came to my local repertory theater that year and came away sufficiently impressed to follow his work for the seventeen films that followed, from Lianna and Baby, It’s You in 1983 to his latest, Go For Sisters, released thirty years later.

Sayles quickly moved into the forefront of the “independent film” movement: he writes, directs, and edits his films. “I always say the screenplay is like the first draft, the shooting is like the second draft, and the editing is like the third draft,” he told Ben Crair in a 2011 article published on The Daily Beast. “That’s why I edit my own movies now: I don’t bring somebody in to write the third draft of my book.” Along the way he has worked with talents as diverse as David Straithaim, James Earl Jones, John Cusack, Alfre Woodward, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Alan King, Mary Steenburgen, Kris Kristofferson, and Daryl Hannah. While much of his work is done outside the Hollywood-big-studio norm, he does inhabit space within that world, serving as script doctor on several major-studio releases (Apollo 13, Jurassic Park IV, and he also wrote an early draft of the story that become E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial). Bruce Springsteen also tapped Sayles to direct the “Glory Days” video from his monster Born in the USA album.

2_Pena & Cooper in LONE STAR

My favorite Sayles film is 1996’s Lone Star (that’s Elizabeth Pena and Chris Cooper above, in a shot from the film). Murder in a small town and its investigation by local law enforcement officials start to reveal a spiderweb of events that branch and grow, touching the lives of many compelling characters, offering surprise twists and revelations that make the motion picture compelling viewing for those interested, not in special effects and lots of explosions, but in “real” characters inhabiting “real” situations and struggling with “real” problems.

It was a pleasant surprise, sometime during the 1990s, when I discovered Sayles turned his hand to prose fiction in addition to film (in fact, he was a published author before Secaucus 7 was ever filmed). I found and eagerly whipped through all of his work in print at that time — the story collection Anarchists’ Convention, the novels Pride of the Bimbos, Union Dues, and 1991’s wonderful Los Gusanos. Another book of short stories, Dillinger in Hollywood, followed in 2004. I bought A Moment in the Sun when it came out in 2012, but it sat on my “To Be Read” shelf for five years, my eagerness to explore N*E*W S*A*Y*L*E*S tempered by the sheer size of the book. I knew I needed to wait until I was certain I could devote sufficient attention to absorbing a project of this magnitude. The moment seemed right in mid-June of this year. I held my breath, dove in, and took the plunge for the better part of a month. After my immersion into the world of A Moment in the Sun, I am here to give this novel my highest recommendation.

Sayles creates a turn-of-the-century saga, beginning with the Alaskan gold rush of 1898; then turning an unflinching eye to that year’s race riots and insurrectionism in Wilmington, North Carolina (the only time in United States history that a duly-elected government has been overthrown) before offering a look at the Spanish-American War as fought by African-American soldiers in Cuba and, later, in the Philippines; and dealing with the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. The cast includes scores of characters, yet centers around would-be gold miner Hod Brackenridge, Philippine revolutionary Diosdado Concepcion, the Manigault family (wastrel son Niles, his crippled brother Harry, and their stern Southern father, the Judge), as well as the African-American Luncefords: the Doctor, his wife, their son Junior, and their young daughter Jessie.

As the tapestry of their narratives unfurls it touches upon the state of journalism during this period, provides a look at the nascent days of what would become the motion picture industry, and concerns itself with the plight of lower-class laborers in an America rushing from an agrarian to an industrial economy: farmers, miners, taxi-drivers and haulers in the days before horse-and-cart gave way to the automobile. Sayles is no florid stylist, but he knows how to turn a phrase, impart information, and summon an emotion, as in this passage from page 217:

4_Pg 217

I spend a fair amount of time studying the records, writing, and artwork of past years, and my jaw scrapes the floor when I consider the extensive research that has gone into A Moment in the Sun.  Not just the events, but the technology, the differing public opinions, the variety of slang and jargon employed in different geographical regions of a land not yet connected by movies or radio, let alone television — the sheer breadth of historical exploration would be impressive enough, but the depth, combined with the width, makes this a truly monumental achievement. On display in these pages is the type of detail they never teach in high school U.S. History class. (More’s the pity, because such detail might make history come alive for more members of the studentry.) As the cherry upon this scholarly sundae, McSweeney’s, publisher of the book, has made available online a wide range of material Sayles collected during his researches: check out A Look at the World Behind A Moment in the Sun.

Consider this an unabashed rave for A Moment in the Sun, still on sale at finer booksellers and major on-line outlets. Even if you choose not to invest the time and energy to absorb this sprawling epic of a novel, you’re also encouraged to dip into the various video providers and watch a Sayles film or two — The Secret of Roan Innish may be his most lyrical, City of Hope his hardest to find (I located it only on VHS), Casa de los Babys his most interesting character study, and Matewan (a shot below, featuring James Earl Jones) his toughest, angriest work.


But for those with more than a couple hours to invest, A Moment in the Sun will reward you in any number of ways. And — just to prove there is a link to what we do here at LOAC — Sayles is well aware of the spell the still-young comics medium was casting upon the populace. The novel features a newsboy known only as The Yellow Kid — Hearst and Pulitzer are referenced as the story progresses — and I’ll tease you to read the book and puzzle out the real-life identity of the character referred to only as “The Cartoonist.” A Moment in the Sun even describes a handful of political cartoons, much like this one depicting House Speaker Thomas “Czar” Reed and President McKinley seeking to keep the pressure from blowing the top off the Capitol dome as legislators beat the drums for military action against Spain.

3_McKinley Political Cartoon

I’ll be back soon with a look at a different book. Though very different from A Moment in the Sun in terms of length and subject matter, I think it, too, will be of interest to LOAC readers everywhere.

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