The Sunlight Dialogues

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

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Reader's Thoughts

Evan Kingston

Awesome in every sense of the word; Gardner uses a diverse arsenal of writing styles to explore the lives of a sprawling cast, reveling in the minutia of American life in the 1960's to answer those big, timeless questions that literature was built to address. Full of a dozen conflicts that could each fuel their own novels, the police-mysteries, family-dramas, and philosophical battles that draw you from one chapter to the next don't end tidily with easy answers, but the sum of there conclusions is incredibly satisfying.I shouldn't have read this 700 page masterpiece while trying to trim my own novel down to 300 pages; Gardner writes with such authority, such swagger, that I never paused to think this paragraph of description, that page of philosophy, or this chapter of subplot might not be worth my time. I'm glad to have spent as much time with this book as I did.


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.

Kevin Bell

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

Richard Epstein

Remember John Gardner? No one else does either. He was once a Great American Novelist, albeit only briefly. I wonder if the Wheel will spin him round again.


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.

Ian Wold

Reading this book felt like a punch in the gut. It took me a long time to finish because it was so well developed. Would love to discuss this book with someone who has taken the time to finish it.

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.


Why John Dufresne Matters More Than John Gardnerby Scott Archer JonesLet us gather together and sit in judgement. You the reader demand the right to judge, to weigh up what fiction works and what fiction doesn't, and of course, all this opinionating piles up. The sum composite of all of our beliefs tallies the verdict of time. Take two cases, and pick a winner.John Gardner, rascal, iconoclast, a popular and an experimental post-modern author strode the landscape like a god from his first book in 1970 to his death by motorcycle in 1982. Gardner wanted to write the perfect mythological revival and the Great American Novel, and got damn close on both counts. His work is so important MFAs and PhDs revolve around it like tiny satellites. John Dufresne, coming much later, shows the trends, the joy of writing, the dedication of one of our writers. He's built a small but rabid following and his work reads laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking. He thrives on teaching (as Gardner did), but when you check the sales you can see that the world has changed – Gardner's sales were huge, Dufresne, not so much. I believe I can make the argument that Gardner failed – Dos Passos or Faulkner can lay much better claim to the Great American Novel – and that literature, our literature, is alive and kicking through authors like Dufresne. Let us sit together to hear two stories. We can take a bearing on the two Johns in a contrast between the Sunlight Dialogues (1972) and a story from the Johnny Be Bad collection, “Died and Gone to Heaven” (2005). The first is a sprawling 600-plus-page epic full of Mesopotamic dialogue, parodies of Faulkner, Mallory and Sartre, a heap of gargoyles, capped by the transformation of a mole-like character from death-in-life into a charismatic preacher (bless the good Samaritan and the bad Samaritan alike). The other is a simple short story of Southern white trash who bully a colostomic mother into suicide-by-hygiene only to dump her body in a ditch – and a policeman's visceral reaction to the fundamental banality of stupidity.The Sunlight Dialogues seduced thousands of readers at the time of its debut and hung onto the NYT best-sellers list for a dozen weeks. All this happened in spite of hundreds of pages of layering and blatantly academic motifs – after all, Gardner wrote in the era of Pynchon and Pirsig. The antagonist the Sunlight Man and the protagonist Clumly are Gardner's grotesques, shockingly un-beautiful. Ugly, yet either redeemed or destroyed by Love with a capital L. The first description of the Sunlight Man jars us viscerally – he carries burns like a soldier who has suffered from phosphorus and his forehead is “scarred, wrinkled, drawn, right up into the hairline, and above the arc of his balding, his hair exploded like chaotic sunbeams around an Eastern tomb.” The description of Clumly strikes us as hardly more endearing – “Aside from the whiteness and the hairlessness, his only remarkable features were his large nose, which was like a mole’s, and his teeth, which were strikingly white,” perfect movie-star teeth. The antithesis of the regal King Arthur (Gardner's parody), Clumly has “the look of … a man who has slept three nights in the belly of a whale.” Gardner jerks us along on a wild ride – through a handful of needless deaths, four bizarre settings, eight plot lines and close to a hundred characters. In the end, we pity the Sunlight Man trapped in some anarchistic freedom and deluded into a deadly atonement. Astounded, we wonder open-mouthed at Clumly, somehow redeemed by a vision of light as he blesses a room full of dairy men.Gardner lands himself in an authorial stew. He doesn't know if he is freed by his existentialism or condemned by it, whether he can rationalize any affirmation of humanity and faith, of art and love or if he has to deny all chance because of his own brutal intellectual honesty. Gardner can't even decide if he tells the story's unbroken seamless dream or if he speaks directly to and of the writing as metafiction.For those of you who don't know his work, Dufresne doesn't care if he is post-modern or retro-pre-post-modern revival. He always cares about story, even a story about a woman on a bar stool beside him, as she convinces him to write her sad tale. His work is committed to humor and horror, seasoned up in the same dish. He has fun writing and although he probably sneaks in references to Talmudic texts and Mallory's King Arthur, you need an electron microscope to find them. He enjoys ambiguity and rubs your nose in it. Are his images and phrases, his craft better than Gardener? – possibly not.In Dufresne's story “Died and Gone to Heaven,” we are introduced to Eula, dying from a backed-up colostomy bag and rasslin' with the Lord on the bed as He transmutes into various verminous animals – one of which (I find this too good not to tell) manifests as a realtor selling Paradise cottages. She's the mother of Doyle who lusts after all things tawdry, foremost his slutty wife Gloria and after that, his TV and his mother's house. Dead Eula is bundled into a buzzard-infested ditch that becomes the allegorical search for truth. A shotgun-toting oracle named Tommy Ray takes the scene and brings Officer Gethern Kincaid in from stage left. Gethern, whose own mother was as “crazy as a bedbug” left him with a half-finished clorox milkshake and a thirst for knowing. Unable to shake off Eula's life and death, he pursues them like a reluctant dog on the scent. We are off on a car-crash ride of wife-abuse, morphing into a murder mystery and into a final admission of what happened one night on the tracks behind the Color Tile in New Orleans. In a fully rational act, Gethern kicks the hell out of Doyle's TV, cutting himself deeply. In the bayou out back he falls into an introspection as he soaks away the blood beneath the Milky Way. Gethern is “speeding away from everything else in the universe, speeding away from him, from this place, this earth, this small patch of bottomland where he sat bleeding and remembering, getting smaller and smaller.” Gethern shuts his eyes and, digging his hands into the bayou mud, holds on to something human.Even in this short story Dufresne lets us understand not only Gethern and Tommy Ray, the mother, the abusive father and the murderer, but even Doyle and Gloria as they tilt their “sponge-like faces” at the TV, honing their incredible Jeopardy skills. These most unlikely people populate a perfectly probable universe.What matters most is that John Gardner – in spite of his copious knowledge, his obsession with philosophy, his florid imagination, his sardonic use of cartoon-ism, his shocking choice of hero – in spite of his huge gifts, doesn't care enough to love his characters. What matters most about John Dufresne is that he loves them all, even those that leave you feeling unclean, that start you off in that ditch searching for the truth. We, the jury, ….First Appeared in the Prague Revue


this was a difficult read for me, long, complicated but worthwhile. There's little "sunlight" in Gardner's exploration of the interior processes of his several main characters. I don't know why I had never read the book before. It came out in 1972 but I don't remember knowing about it then. Could be that the "Tabacco Farm Network" in Plymouth NC (where we were living at the time) didn't mention it's publication.


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.


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.

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.


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.

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