Sayles's research is apparent, yet this novel isn't onerous. His sentences are short and robust. He doesn't attempt pseudo-19th-century prose, the nemesis of many a historical novel, but writes in the vivid present tense. He weaves the details of the history into the narrative. You may be surprised by how much of this turns up in dialogue.
There are dozens of characters.
It begins with Hod, who has worked as a miner and at every other unskilled job to save enough money to seek gold in Alaska. In Alaska he ends up working with cons, though he tries to stay honest himself. Later, after leaving, he hooks up with Big Ten, an American Indian who has also seen the underbelly of America. Their odyssey of search for work illustrates the futility and poverty of the down-and-out life of the invisible classes. They dig beets with Mormons, work in mines, and get arrested for riding the rails.
Two of my favorite characters are Junior and Royal, an African-American doctor's son and a servant's nephew who enlist in the colored 25th Infantry of the U.S. Army at Fort Missoula "in hope of heroic actions when there has been little more than monotony and cursing and scutwork of the lowest variety." They also serve as members of the Black Bicycle Corps, founded because of General Miles's belief that the bicycle could in some instances replace the horse. (You can read about the history of the Corps online here.) They ride from Fort Missoula to St. Louis.
Since I am a bicyclist, I'm thrilled by this chapter, "Sojourner" (pp. 69-72), told in the form of a letter by Junior to his father.
"'The bicycle requires neither water, food, nor rest,' General Miles has written, and at times it appears that the same qualities are expected from the colored soldier. Our training at the wheel is additional to our other duties at the fort, so as you may imagine only the most intrepid (some would say 'ambitious') of the enlisted men stepped forward. Lt. Moss's quest this year was a sojourn from Missoula to St. Louis (over 1,000 miles as the crow hobbles) and back, to demonstrate that the only limit of this method of transport is human "spunk" and endurance."
These characters eventually fight in Cuba in the war. It's very sad: Royal accompanies a wounded friend, Little Earl, who was recently "saved" in a Christian tent revival in Tampa, to the chaotic field hospital. They have done what everybody else has done, running, shooting, surviving longer than some, and it has been for--what?
Sayles, an independent filmmaker, has won many awards at film festivals and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Lone Star. He is also the author of novels and short stories, including Dillinger in Hollywood and The Anarchists' Convention.
I'll be reading this slowly this summer and hope to check in again.
MICHAEL DIRDA & H. G. Wells. Michael Dirda reviewed H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay for The Barnes & Noble Review. I am thrilled it's getting play nationally. I just read this in May myself.
Of course my favorite Wells is Kipps, which I also recently read, and since I wrote better on this than on Tono-Bungay, will link you to my blog review of Kipps here.