I began reading John Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogues because my friend John Jantunen recommended it to me as one of the greatest novels ever written and as his personal favourite novel besides, and if I do not like the book quite as much as he does, this is more a reflection of how much John loves the book than of any defects in the book itself, which is superb. Its strength is founded in Gardner’s ability to fashion characters whose actions and ideas and beliefs seem both absolutely coherent from their own perspectives and also deeply incomprehensible from the perspective of everyone else. His characters are always trying to understand each other and their world, always trying to make themselves understood, but always somehow failing in this. They are always looking for the one thing, the key thing, that would finally make sense of things, but always finding that it remains just beyond them. They are beautiful characters, even when they are full of ugliness, beautifully full and complex and human.
The story is told by many of these characters at one point or another, taking on their perspectives for a time, lengthy or short, but the voice that it inhabits most often is that of Clumly, a small town Police Chief who is struggling to maintain a life that is inexplicably deteriorating around him. His marriage is quietly withering. His job is increasingly dominated by paperwork that he can never bring himself to do and by budgetary and procedural restrains that keep him from being able to police the town as he used to do. He is at odds over these things with the mayor and the townspeople and even his own officers. He is filled with doubts and uncertainties, paralyzed, unable to do even the things that seem simplest and most obvious.
This personal malaise is brought to a crisis by the Sunlight Man, a mysterious vagrant who is arrested for spray painting the word ‘LOVE’ on a city street. The Sunlight Man is a character of the highest order, an immense and impssible character, like Dostoyevsky’s Mishkin or Melville’s Ahab. He is both saintly and devilish, brutally sane and dramatically mad, an embodiment of the moral impulse that has been driven by our modern culture past the thresholds of both logic and feeling. He is the desire for justice and truth made schizoid or even psychotic by the relentless injustice and deception of the world. Clumly sees something strangely familiar in him, the key to the questions of his life, and the novel revolves around Clumly’s attempts to understand his own life by finally understanding who or what the Sunlight Man really is.
This is not the sort of book where mysteries become solved, however, not in the ways that really matter. While the identity and the motivations of the Sunlight Man are eventually made clear, the deeper questions that his character poses remain unsolved. The Sunlight Man might be said to have accomplished his aims before he is killed, but these aims are ethically ambiguous at best, and Clumly is never able to find satisfying answers to the questions of his life, not unless his final speech of the novel arrives at conclusions that I am not able to decipher. Instead, Gardner leaves the lives of his characters as complex and ambiguous and unresolved as he found them, and he leaves his readers in this place also, contemplating the intricacies and the ambiguities of lives that strive to be what they ought to be in a world that often seems at odds with their purposes.
It is this, I think that makes the novel so compelling: we recognize ourselves, not in the specificity of its characters perhaps, but in their complexities of their humanity. We recognize their striving and their longing and their confusion, and we discover ourselves among them, for better or for worse.