The Sunlight Dialogues

ISBN: 0811216705
ISBN 13: 9780811216708
By: John Gardner Charles R. Johnson

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Reader's Thoughts


Just a great, great book. Put me in a mood and never let me go. Brilliantly obscure and fascinating. It's an epic and well worth the effort to get through a long read. Would recommend highly.


Began this the other day. Currently reading three or four other books, so it's not high priority. Written in 1972, and it shows. I'm interested enough to keep reading, but books that depict "counter-cultural" types doing battle with straight-laced authority figures feel mighty dated in 2013. The hero is a hippie vagrant and the villain is a small town sheriff - sounds 60s hack enough? Enough people have said good things about this book that I'll keep reading, though.


An epic that demands patience as it meanders through apparently unrelated happenings in a small which are, seemingly, being orchestrated by a madman. A preamble to "Mickleson's Ghosts" which finds to author in a less apocalyptic mood.His, the author's death at a fairly young age, appears problematic when set in the context of the conspiratorial themes which permeate these two books.


The stars are from memory - it has been so long. Enough to say that from that moment on i bought everything of his in hardback til he died. His generosity, insight and brilliance were the counterpoint i was hungry for when my college teachers were drooling over Barthe. Not to put Barthe down, but I wanted confirmation that brilliance did not require disdain in order to shine.

Monty Merrick

This book has lasting power. It got under my skin. I still remember the looks on character's faces, described in certain scenes, which I find so rare and magical for an author to pull off. John Gardner was an amazing storyteller.


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.


I usually love John Gardner. Everything I've read of his up until now has ended up on my favorites list, but this book was nearly impossible for me to get through. There were so many characters and the narrator often referred to the characters by description rather than name, so it was confusing to figure out who was speaking or being described. It felt very long and contrived. The story idea is creative and Gardner often paints very vivid, quirky, and interesting characters, but I felt this time they were a bit flat.

Jacob Andra

I slogged about halfway through this one before giving up. Maybe another time. Gardner is a terrific writer, but he waxes so darn philosophical! It makes for slow going.


this book is completely, completely amazing. it is very long, and at times goes slowly, but I was entirely engrossed in it - the writing is so beautiful and the world of the story so complex. I found it randomly on a shelf in the library and picked it up on a whim, and nobody I know has ever read it. I get the feeling that it might not be for everyone, but I highly recommend it.


This is a novel that demands to be reread, and with care. There is so much going on that it becomes hard to keep it all straight sometimes. Nevertheless, the book is a great epic that centers on western New York.


I love Gardener. That's all there is to it. If you liked any of his other books you won't be disappoint, buy neither will you be surprised.


John Gardner's epic probably fits his ideal of a "moral" fiction to the teeth, but this in turn means the work is simply exhaustive--no moment for detail is left un-investigated; no character is dealt with tersely or for mere narrative means. Some of the characters are interesting and much of the description is downright mesmerizing, yet I cannot say I enjoyed the avoidance of brevity like a disease. It also doesn't help that the ending didn't seem to tie enough of the narrative together. I seriously enjoyed many parts of this book, but ironically I think that Gardner's epic would have been more successful if he had taken fewer pages to tell it, focusing on delivering a more concise and cohesive work that matches his many moments of stark clarity as a storyteller.

Kevin Bell

Brilliant, ambitious, well done. Sweeping novel of immense talent. Definitely Gardner's pinnacle.


The main character is introduced in prison where he calls himself the sunlight man. Complex inter-relationships, philosophical diatribes and wonderful character development.


I keep coming back to this book. It's a classic that is always worth reading again. A strange visitor called The Sunlight Man with a mysterious past and some serious behavioral issues drops into a suburban community in upstate New York and begins to wreak havoc. His invasive and anarchic presence there comes to the attention of Clumly, the chief of police. Thus begins a series of confrontations between the two, which eventually evolve into clandestine meetings between them, and the "dialogues" (really lectures), of the title, given by the Sunlight Man. With all this surreal disruption of his formerly normal life, Clumly's rational world begins to unravel. Around Clumly and The Sunlight Man is a huge cast of characters, and this book lists them at its opening, as they would be listed in a play program, just in case you can't tell the players without a scorecard. TSD is about as beautiful a treatment of the concept of the balance between order and chaos in society (and the need for both), as one could hope for.

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