Among the several literary careers that have started off strongly in the last five or six years, that of John Sayles is unusual and interesting. At a time when the general drift of American prose seems to be through baroque toward rococo, and the drift of narrative from psychopathological melodrama into fable and fantasy, Mr. Sayles is a revivalist of realism, old-time and unabashed.
This declaration could be supported comfortably on the evidence of Mr. Sayles' 1977 novel, "Union Dues." There will be some exceptions to it noted in describing ["The Anarchists' Convention"], a collection of short stories….
The first of the 15 stories, "Home for Wayfarers,"… is a slice-of-life piece, which displays a group of young women temporary office workers in Boston, as arbitrarily assorted as the members of a wartime infantry squad…. It's a display piece for a fine ear and deft control of characters….
Though Mr. Sayles is generally more likely to spare his characters than condemn them, the third piece, "Schiffman's Ape," a well-imagined and well-researched account of a pair of field zoologists, is a little jarring in its hostility toward the scientists. In the fourth we are back again with blue-collar women, this time on a bowling night, and the directing of our sympathies in once more easy to take.
Then there is a pas de deux story called "The Cabinet Maker," in which readers of...
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Union Dues firmly established John Sayles's gift for translating acute psychological insights into viable fiction, and [The Anarchists' Convention] indicates no lessening of that gift. Still, the author displays a disturbing tendency to dance at the brink of sentimentality, perhaps because he is so intent upon capturing lower-middle-class verities.
Sayles's strongest virtues—his efficient plain style, his formal intelligence, his obvious compassion for his victimized characters—always prevent total aesthetic collapse, and several of the stories attain a perfect blend of manner and means. "I-80 Nebraska, m. 490—m. 205" maintains a fierce narrative pace that is almost surrealistic in its leaps from voice to voice along crackling CB waves as a rebel trucker, high on drugs and existential disgust with his culture, achieves mythic stature in his drive to destruction…. Despite an unabashedly romantic finale, the title story also defies the laws of literary gravity through its adoption of an ironic, self-mocking consciousness that will yield neither to the failure of the flesh nor the death of an ideal.
The Anarchists' Convention reaffirms Schopenhauer's vision of man as a creature in quest of a metaphysical reality, a reality that Sayles and his kind keep alive for us in this age of brute fact.
Edward Butscher, "Books in Brief: 'The Anarchists' Convention'," in Saturday Review (© 1979 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 6, No. 9, April 28, 1979, p. 46.
[John Sayles] is described by his publisher as "a jack of all kinds of blue-collar trades." He is also, probably not coincidentally, one of our most exciting and accomplished young writers. His last novel, Union Dues, featured moving portraits of Americans at their jobs…. [The Anarchists' Convention] is also peopled by characters who leave the "music-masters" behind every morning; dishwashers, dog-breeders, cowboys, truck drivers, anthropologists in the field. Work does not just fill their time; it shapes their consciousness and gives form to their lives….
Sayles has an unerring ear for American speech…. His characters, whether they are illegal aliens in California or office temps in Boston, speak with individuality and vividness….
Keen powers of observation, of course, can serve as a crutch, leading the writer to produce journalistic fiction, the rendering of life without the leaven of imagination and the structure of art. "Golden State" suffers from this flaw, as do other stories in the book….
Still others—the title story, and "Fission," an account of life in a midwestern bomb-shelter—are too satirical, too obviously pointed, to work as fiction. But the best stories bring together Sayles' eye, ear, and point of view to present a powerful view of America in the late '70s—a land of illegal aliens, Vietnamese refugees, sexually precocious teenagers, aging leftists and angry, restless women. At his best, Sayles has a tremendous gift for characterization—for rendering fictional people who are seen for themselves, without caricature but also without sentiment.
Two of the book's best stories—"Schiffman's Ape," about a pair of married anthropologists, and "Bad Dogs," about the sexual initiation of a high-school basketball star—present a view of human sexuality that suggests there is little difference between us and animals in this regard—that all our suffering and posturing in the name of love may be no more meaningful than the pluming and preening of our fellow-mammals during their own mating seasons. It is a measure of the compassion with which Sayles writes that this vision is neither depressing nor glib, but oddly reassuring. Such is the power of an artist who sees us as we are, at work and play.
Garrett Epps, "Tales of the Working Class," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), April 29, 1979, p. M5.
It doesn't really require the 15 stories in John Sayles's collection ["The Anarchists' Convention"] to prove that Mr. Sayles has a winning way with the short story. In fact, any number of passages could be extracted from his two novels, "Pride of the Bimbos" and "Union Dues," to prove the point. (p. 425)
[The] six stories centering on Brian McNeil in ["The Anarchists' Convention"], if put between covers of a book, would make a substantial novella, and not only in bulk. For in their sequence, these tales constitute a rite of passage from the boy's adolescent fumbling with sex through his Western odyssey and arrival on thé Coast, where the ominous portents of his future cast their shadows over him.
The collection also illustrates the author's approach to his material. A strong determinist strain runs through his work. (pp. 425-26)
Mr. Sayles's characters are end products of their environment. The heroic element is muted in his fiction. Most of the time, his people are acted upon. They do not so much suffer through life as endure it. But the harder they are hit, the less malleable they become. They become fixed, stolid, uncommunicative. That is why, in his fiction, the settings often have a richness that his people lack….
Mr. Sayles is saved from the pessimistic bias of naturalism by a lyric language, a feel for the fantastic, best seen in "Pride of the Bimbos," and a sometimes hilarious sense of parody. Those ideological discussions in "Union Dues" are too good to be true. There is no Barth-like verbal prestidigitation, no cleverness or archness of a Donald Barthelme either.
Even at its most fantastic, there is a realistic underpinning to Mr. Sayles's fiction. A presupposed reality is considered the mark of reactionary esthetics, but that is to assume that everything has been said about the situations and characters Mr. Sayles writes about…. Rarified stages of consciousness or the extremes of sensibility are not the only stuff of fiction. (p. 426)
Thomas Lask, "'The Anarchists' Convention'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 3, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. 11, No. 9, 1979, pp. 425-26).