In ‘A Moment in the Sun,’ a toilsome turning of the century

July 14, 2011

“America, America, God shed his grace on Thee,” Randy Newman once sang in a mocking anthem. “You have whipped the Filipino, now you rule the Western sea.”

 Such is the international background of John Sayles’s mammoth new novel, set amid the Philippine-American War, when the world seemed like America’s for the taking. Covering some of the same ground as Thomas Pynchon’s “Against the Day” and E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” the book follows dozens of characters across the turn of the 20th century, an era defined by vast wealth, urban poverty, the Klondike Gold Rush, yellow journalism, racial tension and the rise of motion pictures.

Sayles’s multi-narrative tackles all this over the course of its nearly 1,000 pages, but the result is a curiously lumpy enterprise, especially for a prolific indie director and screenwriter known for his economic storytelling. It’s a book whose many parts — some gripping, some tendentious — generate tension only in fits and starts, consistently losing more energy than it gains.

The story is divided into a more or less sequential, Dos Passos-style mosaic of its time, in which three overlapping narrative threads emerge.

First, there’s the journey of Hosea “Hod” Brackenridge, who marched with Coxey’s Army, then heads for the Yukon to make his fortune in the Gold Rush. He gets robbed, becomes a boxer and wanders from pillar to post before joining the U.S. Army.

Second, there’s the story set amid the Wilmington, N.C., Massacre of 1898, a horrific historical event that will likely come as news to many readers, as it did to this one: the rare American instance of the violent overthrow of an elected city government, unimpeded by federal intervention. In the reign of terror that followed, a white mob killed and terrorized black citizens, driving many from the city.

Long before that melee, the sons of Wilmington join the Army. Black recruits such as best friends Junior Lunceford and Royal Scott, members of the all-black 25th Infantry, take the front lines in Cuba. Their sergeant calls them “cannon meat,” the ones who go in first before they “send in the boys that are gonna survive and pose for the statue.”

On the other side of this novel’s world is the story of Diosdado Concepcion, a true-believing young Filipino who joins a secret society bent on liberating Cuba and the Philippines from the yoke of Spain. Diosdado’s dream of independence appears within reach when America becomes involved, only to find that the Yanquis aren’t just there to help. “Hungry for our lands, our souls, hungry for the world,” he says at one point. “These people . . . they could devour every one of our islands and never be satisfied.”

Diosdado shoulders much of the burden of the story, losing his naivete as he finds himself a pawn in a much bigger game. The real dramatic heart of the story, however, is in Wilmington, which features the book’s single most endearing character: Aaron Lunceford, Junior’s esteemed father, a successful black physician and local role model, who endures a crucible of fire once the white militia arrives.                 

Sayles is often successful at re-creating the world of 110 years ago. He has a sharp eye for the telling details of how life was lived, whether it involved jumping off a moving train, a cockfighter sucking blood from a rooster’s comb, or a doctor setting a broken arm on the spur of the moment.

The problem is that there’s little friction among the novel’s competing parts, which alternate between exciting and didactic. Too often, we find Sayles doing something he would never do as a director: cutting away just as the story gets going. He keeps wanting to remind you of the big picture, the point of the story, of how both at home and abroad white people always run dark-skinned people off their lands (with sly but unmistakable references to the war in Iraq). Also, he gets carried away. He brings in numerous historical walk-ons, characters who come and suddenly go, laborious conversations among anonymous parties and stories that serve no purpose and go nowhere. (I’m looking at you, Pages 827-850.) This is a novel about American expansionism that just never stops inflating.

Sayles the dramatist keeps getting elbowed aside by Sayles the set designer, the blowhard and the polemicist, and his writing style just doesn’t have the zest or brio to make it all consistently entertaining. Turning these pages can become a Sisyphean task. You finish it feeling exhausted rather than exhilarated. “A Moment in the Sun” could have been really good if it hadn’t tried so hard to be important.

Welch frequently reviews books for the Columbia, S.C., Free-Times.

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