A Moment in the Sun book cover, Emily M. Keeler, Bookside Table

A Moment in the Sun is big in size and generous in story. Just like in his movies, John Sayles is a story weaving king here, threading an overfull menagerie of characters through an historical bricolage composed from the vastness of America and her foreign exploits between 1897 and 1903.

It’s a heavy and learned book, full of finely realized historical detail and an abundance of really big issues; the absurd terror of war, the ongoing trauma of racism, the importance of journalistic ethics, the incongruity of corporeal punishment in a so-called free world, familial responsibility, love… But at 953 pages, Sayles havs definitely given himself room to make something messy and real, as troubled and sprawling as America itself. Parts of his story are decidedly revisionist, like the scene where Mark Twain is tied to a tree with the fictional Lt. Niles Manigault in the Philippines, two Americans strung up to die by dehydration or dismemberment. The famous author’s cameo is another beat on Sayles’s loundly banging anti-Imperialist drum, and a not so subtle reminder that always there is a better way out of history, if we listen carefully and watch closely the minutely forking path.

The book, for all of it’s physical, emotional, and historical heft feels a little misweighted to me; there are some story lines I would have liked to see a little more flesh on, particularly the interesting dynamic that develops between the robbed and fallen black woman Jesse and the white Irish maids she is forced into wage earning with towards the end of the novel. In fact, most of my favorite parts of A Moment in the Sun were about the women, who were, for my taste, too frequently left on the story’s back burner.

The first half of the book felt ripe and well paced, with personal and political climaxes plotted out in perfect tandem: here an unwanted pregnancy,there a riot, here a hanging and an initiation into a secret society, there a fixed bar fight that has no real winner. It was a perfect mix of yellow journalism, wanton pyschology, and intriguing historical dialects blending pleasurably on the page.

The second half lurched forward just a little less gracefully. The pacing felt misaligned, perhaps once half of the characters found themselves in Asia, once the American-Filipino war started really rumbling. I personally have relatively little tolerance for war stories, especially for those set before the advent of television, so it may just be that I am a flawed reader for this work. But nonetheless, I felt a stark shift between the riveting storylines in the first half and the tedium of the threads coming together in the second. A few of the character’s resolutions, especially the one with Jessie,  feel a little pat, a little too much like a story in light of all the life that happened over the course of the novel. Despite the lack luster denouement,  Sayles leaves the best for last and gives as a parting gift a perfect final chapter, one that may well infect you with the shudder and the shiver of a ghost, haunting and cruelly beautiful even as the heavy book sits once again inert on the shelf.