The Sunlight Dialogues by John Gardner

The Sunlight Dialogues

John Gardner
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The Sunlight Dialogues_ is truly John Gardner's magnum opus, equaling and perhaps overshadowing _Grendel_, the book for which he is best known. \nGrossly over-simplified, it is about the tide of discontent and change that came about in the 1960s, exemplified in the stories of a handful of people who live in the small New York town of Batavia. All of these characters' stories occur at roughly the same moment, and to a certain degree overlap each other; they all come into contact with one another at some point during the novel, and may even influence each other, but every member of the book's huge cast has his or her own story and denouement. \nThe primary one of these stories is the one that concerns Police Chief Fred Clumly and a haggard, maniacal drifter known as "the Sunlight Man", and the happenings of this particular storyline are the catalysts for the rest of the stories. "The Sunlight Man", whom we later find out is Taggert Hodge, the black sheep of the wealthy and powerful family the members of whom comprise roughly half the other characters in the novel, is the one who sets all of these denouements into motion with his seminal return to his hometown as a magician, hippie, murderer, and poet. His has been a life of disillusionment, loss, betrayal and unattainable wants, and he returns to Batavia to set into motion a sort of romantically juvenile plot to take revenge on the world and to mewl out his disappointment with the way things are, the latter of which he does through Fred Clumly(thus is the origin of the title.) \nGardner is remarkably adept at character development; Taggert Hodge, Walter Benson and Fred Clumly are among the best painted characters of fiction I know of. The author has a gift for articulating neuroses and flaws of characters, from miniscule ticks in their everyday behavior to major personality faults. And with a cast of roughly eleven major characters, making each and every one entirely unique in their drives and hamartias is no task to be scoffed at. However, the ability of John Gardner's I perhaps envy the most is that of taking a very normal, even pretty environmental setting, and turning it nightmarish and haunting. In the novel, the dense forests and century-old barns of Batavia are made into artifacts and ruins of an almost Lovecraftian caliber of queerness, and yet it does not serve to displace the small New York town from the realm of believable reality, but rather forces you to evaluate your reality on the same dark and weird basis as his authorial voice. \nThe sheer scope of the novel (that of several stories cycloning around a unifying theme and plot catalyst) at times threatens to tear it apart, however; the reader at times is left wondering why the author has switched point of views when the scenario he was describing previously had yet to be resolved. This is a mere annoyance, however, and is not really something for which I believe the novel should be faulted, for the rewards of its pages are vast ones. \nDue perhaps to its relatively young age, it has yet to receive the proper "classic" status it so rightly deserves, and, sadly, it may never, for "Grendel" seems to be John Gardner's only remembered and widely read work, and is perpetually overshadowing the rest of the author's material, most of which are just as powerful and memorable as tale of Beowulf's tragic nemesis. In fact, some may even be better, as I propose The Sunlight Dialogues is, but until the higher-ups at Norton and the like get around to looking at this master of fiction as a master should, I advise any and all of the people reading this to purchase this book from whatever obscure publisher it has currently been tossed to.