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The Sunlight Dialogues by John Gardner
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The Sunlight Dialogues (1972)

by John Gardner

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Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
A stunning work --- Outrageously Realistic -- Surreal Truth. ( )
  AMZoltai | Feb 5, 2013 |
A complex story of justice and revenge, in which the Chief of Police of a small town is drawn into a mystifying conflict with a strange magician, the "Sunlight Man". We later learn that the Sunlight Man is a long-missing member of the founding family of the town, the Hodges, who long ago went mad after an unjust tragedy befell his family. The novel is cumbersome and lumbering, almost too weighty to plow through, until the final hundred pages or so when events and people begin to be made clearer. The final dialogue between Chief Clumly and the Sunlight Man nearly redeems the book, but it is finally marred by a sad and frustrating conclusion that in no way satisfies. ( )
1 vote burnit99 | Aug 17, 2008 |
It’s fascinating how much one can learn from the first chapter of a good novel, and how caught up one can become in the details. In chapter 1 of this novel, “Watchdog,” we meet Fred Clumly, police chief of Batavia, New York, in 1966. He stands for Law and Order, he tells us—and everyone else who will listen. But he is beginning to age, pot-bellied, out-of-shape, nervous. He is soft-hearted, caring tenderly for his blind wife, Esther, whom he admits to himself he probably no longer loves if he ever did. He is a solid citizen of the community, attending the funeral of the nursery man, expressing sympathy to his arrogant sons, getting choked up during the final rites. He shows his respect for the elderly Woodworth sisters, visiting their home to “investigate” what he knows is an unsolvable burglary, leaving them the flowers he has just bought for the funeral of another friend.

Furthermore, he is vulnerable, worried that he is behind in the paper work on his desk and that he may not be meeting his public’s expectations. He is even spying on his boss, the Mayor, and getting down on his knees to listen under the door to see if his underlings are talking about him. But on a more serious, and more professional, level, he is concerned about the four men he is now holding in his county jail: Walter Boyle, a thief; two Native American parolees in trouble again; and the one who calls himself the Sunlight Man, who was arrested for painting LOVE across the thruway. There’s more than meets the eye to that last one: Clumly is convinced of that. He is bearded and scarred. He sings and talks and acts crazy. He must be from California, Clumly thinks. When asked, he says he’s from “the Lord of hosts.”

“Are you interested in metaphysics?” he whispers to Clumly during a cross examination. And what’s frightening is that Clumly, who can’t remember for sure what the word means, finds himself wanting to say yes.

But none of this quite explains Clumly’s sense that chaos underlies the world of ordinary experience, about to break out like leviathan in ancient scriptures. Little hints: “It passed through his mind that there was a beach somewhere in California where there was a car, a 1935 model, he couldn’t quite remember what make it was, and inside the car a couple of lovers made out of old wire in the back seat, and some ladies underpants. It was supposed to be an art work.” (That car, in one form or another, keeps recurring throughout the book, and never gets explained. The weird, the unusual, the unknown.)

“But all was still. All was well.” And, even so, Clumly has this foreboding sense of unrest. “Nevertheless, he had a terrible sense of things in motion, secret powers at work in the ancient plaster walls, devouring and building, and forces growing and restive in the trees, the very earth itself succinct with spirit. He had an image, culled from some old books, perhaps, or a sermon he’d heard—an image of his house taken over by owls and ravens and cormorants and bitterns, and strange shapes dancing in his cellar. And in the livingroom, thorns and brambles.”

And then there are those things that Clumly does not know, nor anyone else: “three boys in the alley by the post office were letting the air out of people’s tires with an ice pick. Elsewhere—beside the Tonawanda—a woman was digging a grave for her illegitimate child three hours old. Jim Hume was chasing his cows back through the fence some hunter had cut.”

Yes, it’s fascinating how much one can learn from the first chapter of a good novel, and how much one begins to care for all these people—not just Fred Clumly, but all of Batavia. The Hodge family, the descendants of the Hon. Arthur Hodge, Sr., a deceased Congressman. Already we’ve met the ageing farmer Ben and his garrulous, disabled wife Vanessa. There will be more—the whole family before long, wives, children, divorcees, in-laws. Even Walter Boyle will grow in our imagination, and reveal more and more of himself. And especially the Sunlight Man. Before long he will steal center stage.

For this is John Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogues (Alfred A. Knopf, 1972). Clumly will blunder around, clumsily, trying to solve several mysteries, confronting the disorder of his universe. The Sunlight Man, a magician, an iconoclast, a savant, through a series of long, elaborate discourses will involve Fred—and us—in his existentialist metaphysics. Law and Order, on the one hand, and Disorder on the other. And then there are all those Hodges: Respectability, if you will. Already we begin to sense something archetypal about these people, something mythic about this story. For the town is Batavia and the time is 1966, but somehow this becomes the Town and the Time, our world and our era.

I read this novel more than once when it came out some thirty five years ago. But when I catalogued it recently, it grabbed my attention again. I am reading it with as much interest as before. Maybe more. John Gardner was one of our most versatile USAmerican novelists of the twentieth century: he made his reputation with his brand of magic realism in this novel, but there is also Grendel, the retelling of the Beowulf story from the monster’s point of view; Nickel Mountain, the heart-warming family love story; October Light, a tale of a feuding brother and sister, with her “trashy paperback novel” within the novel; Mickelsson’s Ghosts, an account of a philosophy professor’s descent into madness; and the masterful epic poem, Jason and Medeia. And this is not to mention his short stories, his literary criticism, his early novels, his medieval scholarship, his controversial biography of Chaucer, his children’s books, and his translation of Gilgamesh into modern English. If I were asked to teach a seminar on a twentieth-century USAmerican novelist, I would choose Gardner. Yet for all his versatility, The Sunlight Dialogues (in my opinion) is still his masterpiece.

The novel is illustrated with somewhat surrealistic black-and white drawings by John Napper. The last page is a death certificate with the key words, “in pursuit of order.” The last sentence of the last chapter (make what you will of it) is “All this, though some may consider it strange, mere fiction, is the truth.”
3 vote bfrank | Aug 2, 2007 |
I loved it for about the first 400 pages or so and then I started to lose interest. I'm not sure if it was my own fault or the book's, but there are parts of this book that are wonderful.

Ostensibly, it is about the 1960's and the counterculture, and struggles against it in a truly pastoral Batavia, New York. I bizarre magician/criminal (?) comes to town and turn everything upside down. As I've said, I think there are parts of this book that deserve a lot of praise, but as a whole I didn't quite get it. It doesn't quite hold together. Certainly worth reading, however.
1 vote LarryDarrell | Mar 4, 2007 |
What a romp of a philosophical novel!

That is, such was my impression nearly 30 years ago. I have not read it since. ( )
  wirkman | Feb 27, 2007 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Gardnerprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Napper, JohnIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0811216705, Paperback)

Madman. Prophet. Magician. Hippie. Murderer. Who is the Sunlight Man?

In The Sunlight Dialogues, John Gardner's vision of America in the turbulent 1960s embraces an unconventional cast of conventional citizens in the small rural town of Batavia, New York. Sheriff Fred Clumly is trying desperately to unravel mysteries surrounding a disorderly, nameless drifter called "The Sunlight Man," who has been jailed for painting the word "LOVE" across two lanes of traffic, and who is later suspected of murder. The men battle over morality, freedom and their opposing notions of justice, leading each to find his own state of grace. Their conflict is mirrored in the community of middlebrow politicians and their church-going wives, Native Americans, working-class immigrants, farmers, soldiers, petty thieves, and even centenarian sisters too stubborn to die. Gardner's alchemy is existential: from the most raw, vulnerable, and conflicting characters in the American melting pot, he transmutes common denominators of human isolation and longing. With unnerving suspense, his acute ear for American speech, and permeated by his deep-rooted belief in morality, this expansive, sprawling, and ambitious novel is John Gardner's masterpiece: "A superb literary achievement," noted The Boston Globe.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:05:31 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

John Gardner's sweeping portrait of the collision of opposing philosophical perspectives in 1960s America, centering on the appearance of a mysterious stranger in a small upstate New York town One summer day, a countercultural drifter known only as the Sunlight Man appears in Batavia, New York. Jailed for painting the word "LOVE" across two lanes of traffic, the Sunlight Man encounters Fred Clumly, a sixty-four-year-old town sheriff. Throughout the course of this impressive narrative, the dialogue between these two men becomes a microcosm of the social unrest that epitomized America during this significant historical period'and culminates in an unforgettable ending. Beautifully expansive and imbued with exceptional social insight, The Sunlight Dialogues is John Gardner's most ambitious work andestablished him as one of the most important fiction writers in post'World War II America. This ebook features a new illustrated biography of John Gardner, including original letters, rare photos, and never-before-seen documents from the Gardner family and the University of Rochester Archives.… (more)

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