The Sunlight Dialogues by John Gardner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When a book starts with a family tree and several pages listing the various characters, you know it’s not going to be an easy read and this book isn’t. At almost 700 pages, it takes a while and you need those lists and that tree to keep people straight throughout the book.
I have mixed feelings about this book. It revolves around two main characters–Chief of Police Fred Clumly and The Sunlight Man, aka Taggert Hodge.
Fred Clumly has devoted his life to serving Law and Order in the small New York town of Batavia. Law and Order is the solid ground on which the rest of his life stands. But now, in the early ’60s, that ground is beginning to shift under his feet, moved by the shock waves traveling from the Watts riots, Vietnam anti-war protests, hippies, drug use, etc. The ground begins to disintegrate when a stranger, known as The Sunlight Man, is arrested for painting the word LOVE on one of Batavia’s streets.
Unknown to most of the residents of Batavia, The Sunlight Man is actually one of their own–Taggart Hodge, the youngest son of a formerly prominent family in Batavia. With the death of the patriarch, the Congressman, the rest of the family disintegrates–unhappy marriages, lives far beneath their potential–with Taggart’s life turning the most tragic. The loss of his wife–first to insanity, then to a fire that she sets and that claims the lives of their sons (she survives) undoes Taggart. He returns to Batavia to exact revenge on his former father-in-law (who had opposed the marriage and forces an annulment when his daughter goes insane), but Taggart’s insanity drives him far beyond his initial impulse.
Most of the book revolves around the interaction of The Sunlight Man and Clumly–both outcasts in a world they no longer recognize–Taggart because he’s insane and Clumly because he’s no longer respected by his men or the city in which he’s devoted his life. After Taggart escapes from jail, he returns, frees another prisoner and kills one of Clumly’s men in the process. Clumly meets with Taggart several times, during which the two carry on extensive dialogues (The Sunlight Dialogues)–which is more Taggart than Clumly because the talks are over Clumly’s head–there is never a move made to try to arrest Taggart, which leads to more tragic consequences. When Taggart’s identity is figured out by several Hodge family members, there is no move to alert Clumly to who The Sunlight Man is–which also allows the manic to continue on his rampage.
Some of the problems with this book. One of the cultural references to the sixties–if you are unfamiliar to them (I knew most, but one or two escaped me), then parts of the book lose their meaning. The dialogues themselves–there are four, I think–can become tedious after the first two pages. I think part of the problem I had was the format in which they are written–they are formatted like a play and I loathe reading plays.
Is this a book worth reading–yes. But, it will take time to work through because of it’s multiple layers and multiple sub-plots. Several characters make brief appearances, and I’m still not sure why they were there, but because of names that cause them to stand out, they are still sticking with me. This is a book that really needs to be read multiple times in order to fully appreciate all it’s layers and subtext, and I’m not sure at this point if reading this book again is something that I will want to do.