By John Sayles

McSweeney’s (May 2011, world English rights)

Paper • ISBN-13: 9781936365180


The much-anticipated new historical novel from John Sayles.

A Moment in the Sun deals with a crossroads in the struggle for the soul of America. As the nineteenth century accelerates toward the twentieth, three major themes emerge — the contentious dawn of U.S. imperialism in Cuba and the Philippines, the last desperate stand of Reconstruction in the American south, and the development of mass media, especially the brand-new phenomenon of motion pictures, as the lens through which the public increasingly will interpret world events.

The story follows the interweaving lives of Royal Scott, a black man from Wilmington, North Carolina, who has joined the 25th (Colored) Infantry to “be a credit to his race” and attract the love of a woman far above his station; Hod Brackenridge, a white laborer and vagabond who drifts into the Colorado Volunteers to escape the harsh economic realities of the times; Harry Manigault, a white Southerner drawn to New York and the exciting new frontier of the movies; and Diosdado Concepción, a Filipino ‘ilustrado’ and linguist struggling to bring liberty to his own deeply divided nation.

The story ranges from the Yukon gold fields, to New York’s bustling Newspaper Row, to Wilmington’s deadly racial coup of 1898, to the bitter triumphs at El Caney and San Juan Hill in Cuba, and to the festering guerilla conflict of the Philippine-American War (our first Viet Nam).

The book is as big as its subject: history rediscovered through the lives of the people who made it happen.


“In his most spectacular work of fiction to date, filmmaker Sayles combines wonder and outrage in a vigorous dramatization of overlooked and downright shameful aspects of turn-of-the-nineteenth-century America. Fascinated by the roiling nation’s multicultural spectrum and human impulses corrupt and altruistic, Sayles re-creates the ferment and conflicts of the Yukon gold rush, hobo life, New York’s sweatshops, the race riot and white supremacist coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, and the covered-up horrors of the Philippine-American War (the focus of Sayles’s forthcoming film, Amigo). Real-life figures appear, including President McKinley and his assassin and anti-imperialist Mark Twain, but it is Sayles’ vital invented characters who rule, from sweet, hapless Hod, who survives the brutality of mines, the boxing ring, jail, and the military without losing his faith in romance, to his wry Native American road buddy, Big Ten; the Luncefords, a cultured African American family that suffers an appalling reversal of fortune; Mei, a Chinese woman forced into prostitution; and Diosdado, a young Filipino rebel. Crackling with rare historical details, spiked with caustic humor, and fueled by incandescent wrath over racism, sexism, and serial injustice against working people, Sayles’ hard-driving yet penetrating and compassionate saga explicates the ‘fever dream’ of commerce, the crimes of war, and the dream of redemption.”

Donna Seaman, Booklist

“Though known best as a filmmaker (Eight Men Out), Sayles is also an accomplished novelist (Union Dues), whose latest will stand among the finest work on his impressive résumé. Weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages, the behemoth recalls E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Pynchon’s Against the Day, and Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, tracking mostly unconnected characters whose collective stories create a vast, kaleidoscopic panorama of the turn of the last century. Hod Brackenridge is a miner who gets swindled in the Alaskan gold rush, is strong-armed into a boxing match, and ends up on the run after his opponent dies in the ring. Diosdado, son of a Spanish diplomat, turns against his country and the United States to fight for independence in the Philippines. The most emotionally connected story line involves the black American soldiers who breeze through fighting in Cuba but get stuck in a quagmire in the Philippines while their families back home in Wilmington, N.C., endure a campaign of murder and intimidation that forces an affluent and educated black family out of their home and into poverty in New York City. Naturally, there are cameos — Mark Twain, president McKinley — and period details aplenty that help alleviate the occasional slow patches — indeed, Hod’s story line loses steam toward the end — but the flaws and muck of this big, rangy novel are part of what make it so wonderful.”

Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“Sayles combines these narratives skillfully so they refresh the reader’s curiosity, have plausible literal intersections and build to a comprehensive representation of American political violence at home and abroad. ... In its scale, multiple plots, rigorous attention to setting and technology, colloquial exactitude, race consciousness and suspicion of political power, A Moment in the Sun is admirably Pynchonian. ... Sayles is a master of both architecture and affect. ... He is also a master of the set piece. ... But its true importance lies not in its rearview relevance but in its commitment to recalling in heroic detail a little-known and contradictory historical moment, a sunny time of American pride but also of hubris in sun-beaten locales.”

New York Times Book Review


John Sayles
’ career began as a novelist and short story writer with the publication in 1975 of Pride of the Bimbos, followed in 1977 by Union Dues, a National Critics’ Circle and National Book Award nominee. A short story collection, The Anarchists’ Convention, appeared in 1979, when he began working as a screenwriter for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Early screenwriting credits include Piranha, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Howling, and Alligator.

Using the money he earned writing “creature features,” he financed his first feature as writer/director/editor, The Return of the Secaucus Seven, a bittersweet look at a reunion of 60’s political activists. The film, with a production budget of only $40,000, gained a national theatrical release, won the L.A. Film Critics Award for Best Screenplay and helped launch the American independent film movement. His second film, Lianna, was one of the first American movies to deal with a lesbian relationship in a non-exploitative manner, and set several house records in theaters around the United States.

His first studio movie, Baby It’s You, was released by Paramount in 1983, and featured newcomers such as Rosanna Arquette, Vincent Spano, Matthew Modine and Robert Downey Jr. in a mid-60’s coming-of-age drama. Next was the very low-budget The Brother From Another Planet, an African-American sci-fi allegory starring Joe Morton as a black extra-terrestrial who crashes to earth in Harlem.

Running into financing difficulties, Sayles filled a three-year filmmaking hiatus by acting in a critically acclaimed theater production of The Glass Menagerie with Joanne Woodward and Karen Allen and directing three rock videos for Bruce Springsteen: “Born In The USA,” “I’m On Fire,” and “Glory Days.” He also won a Writers’ Guild Award for best TV movie screenplay for Unnatural Causes, which dealt with the legacy of exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and starred John Ritter and Alfre Woodard.

He was then able to film Matewan and Eight Men Out, projects he had written several years earlier. Matewan is the story of a bloody 1920 West Virginia coal miners’ strike, and marked his first collaboration with actors Chris Cooper and Mary McDonnell, as well as with cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who received an Academy Award nomination for his photography. Sayles wrote a textbook about the screenplay and the experience of the production, Thinking in Pictures, that is used in film courses to this day. Eight Men Out, the story of the 1919 Black Sox baseball scandal, was based on the book by Eliot Asinof and was one of the last movies released by Orion Pictures. It has become a perennial on television during playoff and World Series time.

The television movie Shannon’s Deal, written by Sayles, led to a highly-acclaimed but short-lived TV series of the same name in 1989-90 and starred actors such as Elizabeth PeĖa, Richard Edson and Miguel Ferrer who would later appear in his films. The teleplay won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers Association.

City Of Hope, appearing in 1990, was an urban epic filmed in a mere five weeks, one of the lowest-budget Cinemascope movies ever made, and featured appearances by actors he would work with again and again: Cooper, Morton, David Strathairn, Angela Bassett, Miriam Colon and Tom Wright among others. His third novel, Los Gusanos, a multi-generational tale set in Cuba and Miami’s Little Havana, was published in 1991, and since has been translated into several languages. Next was Passion Fish, a film about the healing relationship between a home-care nurse coming out of rehab and a paraplegic former soap opera star. Alfre Woodard was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, Mary McDonnell for an Academy Award for Best Actress, and Sayles received his first Academy nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

The Secret Of Roan Inish was based on the children’s book The Secret Of The Ron Mor Skerry by Rosalie K. Fry and was the first of his movies filmed outside the United States, working on the northwest coast of Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. The story deals with the legend of a half-human, half-seal selkie and the fate of her descendants. Moving to the Mexico/Texas border, Sayles directed Lone Star, a tale of race and history that proved to be his most commercially successful picture and garnered a second Academy nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Men With Guns, a road movie set in a strife-torn Latin American country, was shot on a very low budget in three different states in Mexico, with dialogue principally in Spanish and several indigenous languages. It was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for best foreign-language film. Limbo, released in 1999, was a story of three damaged people (played by David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Vanessa Martínez) who find each other in the extremes of the Alaskan wilderness. It was invited to the Official Competition of the Cannes Film Festival and remains Sayles’ most controversial movie.

The year 2001 saw Sunshine State, boasting a stellar cast led by Edie Falco and Angela Bassett. The film takes place during a festival week in a Florida coastal town about to be inundated by corporate tourism. In 2003 Casa De Los Babys told the story of a group of American women waiting to adopt children in a South American country. CASA featured Academy Award winners Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen, and Rita Moreno.

Throughout his career Sayles has continued to function as a screenwriter for hire, working with a “who’s-who” of American and international directors and writing over fifty scripts. He received the John D. MacArthur Award, given to 20 Americans each year for their innovative work in diverse fields. He is also recipient of the Eugene V. Debs Award, the John Steinbeck Award and the John Cassavettes Award. He has acted in dozens of films, written songs for his own features, and served as executive producer on Alejandro Springall’s Santitos and Sundance Best Picture winner Girlfight, written and directed by Karyn Kusama.

Silver City, released in 2004, marked his fourth collaboration with both actor Chris Cooper and Director of Photography Haskell Wexler. Honeydripper, about the origins of rock and roll in the deep South, is the latest project. Shot mostly in Greenville and Georgiana (boyhood home of Hank Williams) Alabama, the cast includes Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Stacey Keach, LisaGay Hamilton, Mary Steenburgen, Vondie Curtis Hall, Ruben Santiago Hudson, Sean Patrick Thomas, Kel Mitchell, Yaya DaCosta, R&B legend Mable John, singer-songwriter Ke’b Mo’ and Austin guitar sensation Gary Clark Jr. The movie is, once again, independently financed, being produced without the safety net of a distribution deal, and full of the humor, drama and complex life of this most unpredictable of American directors.

Sayles was recently honored with the Ian McLellan Hunter Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Writer’s Guild of America.


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