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A Moment in the Sun

From John Sayles, a "sprawling, wide-screen, Technicolor" novel of the Spanish-American War.

(Page 3 of 3)

Which is not to suggest artlessness. In his historical films "Matewan" (1987) and "Eight Men Out" (1988) – about a 1920 coal-miners' strike and the 1919 Black Sox game-fixing scandal, respectively – Sayles captured, without sentimentality, the passage of a certain masculine honor made untenable by 20th-century economy and culture. Set a generation earlier, before the meaningless mowing down of bodies and chivalries in the First World War, "A Moment in the Sun" finds the totem of manly stoicism at its apotheosis and, thus, the instant of its eventual demise. Though the argot ranges – with the characters – from the back alleys of Manila and the brothels of the Yukon gold rush to an African-American army regiment and one of the South's last post-Reconstruction black middle classes (which will meet the same fate as the Filipinos), the prose maintains the same gruff, muscular meter:

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"Tampa is a fever dream, a snake swallowing its own tail.

Coop digs and the sand slides in from the sides. He's spent more time with a shovel in his hands than a Krag, something about him that makes sergeants' eyes get big when the shit details are handed out. "You! Cooper!" they say, and he knows it's something down and dirty they've got in mind. The white officers, lieutenant and up, don't even see him, which is a happy news. Coop keeps on digging and the sand keeps filling back in."

Ultimately, the rigor and vigor of this style grinds. If "A Moment in the Sun" had in fact been made as cinema, it would be many times longer and an order of magnitude more expensive than anything Sayles has ever filmed. (A companion piece, limited to the Philippine­-American war, will premiere this summer.) Whatever the medium, grandly emblematic fin-de-siècle epics aren't often models of brevity – see Bertolucci's oddly reminiscent "1900," some five hours and 15 minutes long.

But outside the jargon of certain corners of the academy, novels, however cinematic, are still "read" in an active manner films are not. In this regard it is ironically the lack of slack – the lack of indulgence – that gives Sayles's novel a certain artificiality. With every event, every page, converging tighter and tighter on history, "A Moment in the Sun" cries out for more of the prosaic moments – in both senses of the term – readers might use to come up for air.

Nevertheless, its ideas, its scope, its narrative assurance remain, far more often than not, breathtaking.

Jonathan Liu is a book critic for The New York Observer and The Barnes & Noble Review.

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