A Moment in the Sun

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

A Moment in the Sun By John Sayles McSweeney's Publishing 600 pp.

Two state executions frame the plot – and the politics – of John Sayles's A Moment in the Sun.

The first is carried out behind the walls of the Spanish military compound in Manila. The year is 1896, but the operation is Inquisitional: A petty political criminal is "judicially asphyxiated" via garrote – that is, strapped onto a seat as a metal band is slowly cranked tight around his neck. The few witnesses include soldiers and priests, and Diosdado Concepción, an undercover Filipino nationalist with an Eastman Bullet camera concealed under his coat. The gruesome snapshots will appear in an insurrectionist paper. Diosdado, one of about a half-dozen rash young men at the center of the concentric orbits of "A Moment in the Sun," is henceforth a fugitive, smuggled in the hold of a banana boat to Hong Kong, and further into history.

Five years and close to 1,000 pages later, we arrive at Auburn Prison, New York. The condemned is Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist assassin of U.S. President McKinley (called here simply the Assassin).

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The intervening years – and pages – witness an American battleship mysteriously blown up in Havana harbor; the American yellow press turning the incident into grist for war and increased circulation; and the American army and navy dealing a devastating defeat to Europe's oldest colonial power, forcing it out of the New World for good. Greeted as liberators, the Americans grant Cuba a dependent sort of independence. They annex outright the other archipelago a decaying Spanish Empire had held since the 16th century. Nearly won by 1898, Diosdado's Philippine Revolution finds a new oppressor – one with the vigor and wherewithal to brutally crush the uprising. In 1901, a world's fair called the Pan-American Exposition opens in Buffalo, equal parts valediction for the 19th century and hemispheric coming-out party. There, McKinley is shot.

At Auburn, Manila's burly executioner, a condemned man himself, gives way to a bureaucratic switch-thrower – the medieval garrote to Thomas Edison's electric chair. Another recent Edison invention is banned from the actual proceedings over the Wizard's protestations, but nevertheless sculpts the plot of Czolgosz's demise out of sequences of arriving trains, jockeying reporters, and exterior prison walls. Movie cameras can do that.

Is it fulsome praise, backhanded compliment, or full-frontal sneer to call "A Moment in the Sun" a book that is, above all else, cinematic?

Such intermodal correspondences are, these days, fraught with a sort of moral indeterminacy. The ancient, or "high," would seem to legitimate the modern and "low." In our ongoing TV renaissance, describing a series as novelistic is uncomplicated, fawning tribute. Yet "The Wire" might revivify Dickens as much as Dickens ennobles "The Wire." Calling out a film's formal resemblance to stage drama is sometimes a nod to high-literary pedigree and almost always dismissive – that is, a visually static work that wastes the innovations of its medium, a movie that fails to move.

The most facilely filmic thing about "A Moment in the Sun" is, to be sure, its author. Though he first emerged as a novelist ("Union Dues" was nominated for a 1978 National Book Award), John Sayles has been for three decades now one of the most prolific and genuinely independent of American screenwriter-directors. But this big-screen oeuvre doesn't quite have the bearing on Sayles's new novel, his first since 1991, you'd expect. Compared to the self-contained, low-budget craftsmanship of his many ensemble dramas – from "Return of the Secaucus 7" (1980) to "Sunshine State" (2002) and "Honeydripper" – "A Moment in the Sun" is far more movie-like, or at least far more like a certain type of movie: a sprawling, wide-screen, Technicolor epic.

The better touchstone might be Sayles's third career – the one that finances the other two. Quite possibly the only universally respected people in Hollywood, "script doctors" are the handsomely paid (and usually uncredited) narrative mercenaries hired to turn awful genre exploitations into watchable entertainments and solid blockbusters into classics. Sayles has had a hand in "E.T.," "Apollo 13," and (as yet unflimed) "Jurassic Park IV," among many others, and there is a Hanks/Spielberg economy to his unfolding of world history as a patchwork of portentous lives.

Though stuffed with meticulously researched historical detail, "A Moment in the Sun" must be one of the least indulgent 1,000-page novels of recent decades. Scenes are never more than a few pages long, and are sequenced for the most decisive "cuts" between perspectives and continents. Neither thematic discursion nor temporal diversion intervenes in the self-logic of these collisions – which take the form of what the Soviet film theorist Sergei Eisenstein termed "montage." The phenomenological effect is one of a constant, 24-frames-per-second drumbeat, adding up to a nascent American century on the march, for better or worse. Put a cruder way, this is the rare literary novel in which just about every page takes just about the same amount of time to read.

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:

"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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