Empire of the Senseless
A historical picaresque details America's far-reaching brutality
William T. Vollmann
A Moment in the Sun
by John Sayles
$29.00 List Price
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.