(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Sunlight Dialogues was Gardner’s first major success in his writing career—a best seller for a number of weeks and a critically acclaimed serious novel of ideas. A long novel, it has a considerable amount of action, but it also contains extensive passages of discussion and debate on moral and philosophical issues, which is characteristic of Gardner’s fiction, always deeply concerned with how abstract matters translate into the everyday human situation.

The novel centers on the confrontation between representatives of two differing points of view. One is a chief of police, the other a “magician,” and their dispute concerns law and order, the universe, and humanity’s place in that universe. The police chief, Fred Clumly, and the magician, known for most of the novel only as the Sunlight Man, thus are not only individuals but also representatives of much more.

The Sunlight Man is actually Taggert Hodge, member of a prominent local family now in decline. Taggert, who had fled the town of Batavia, New York, sixteen years previously, has returned for his own version of revenge and redemption. Clumly is drawn into this against his will, but once entered into the pursuit of the Sunlight Man, he becomes caught up in an even larger chase, that of the elusive truth. In a sense captive to his strange relationship with the Sunlight Man, Clumly allows his life and work to collapse, worrying his blind wife, Esther, and angering the mayor and city council, who eventually fire him. He joins the Sunlight Man for a final meeting at Stony Hill, the family home of the Hodges, now in decline, and the two men come to a half-spoken agreement. Later the Sunlight Man tries to surrender to the police; by mistake he is killed, shot (significantly enough) through the heart.

To express the search for meaning and order in which the Sunlight Man and Clumly engage, Gardner fashions his work around four dialogues between Clumly and the Sunlight Man...

(The entire section is 807 words.)

The Sunlight Dialogues Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A scarfaced, bearded, and semideranged man is arrested in Batavia, New York, for writing the word “love” in the street in large white letters. Refusing to identify himself, ironically he comes to be known as the Sunlight Man, due to his cynical diatribes against, among other targets, the American legal system, Western capitalism, and the Judeo-Christian tradition. After befuddling Police Chief Clumly with his magic tricks, he easily escapes from jail, but he soon returns to free Nick Slater, a young Indian in jail for vehicular homicide. While escaping, Nick kills one of Chief Clumly’s deputies. An intense, prolonged manhunt begins. Soon afterward, Nick murders Mrs. Palazzo, the landlady of Will Hodge, Sr., when she surprises Nick and the Sunlight Man, in hiding at Will’s home. Nick and the Sunlight Man then flee to the farm of Luke Hodge, one of Will’s sons and the Sunlight Man’s nephew. While there, the Sunlight Man engages in a bizarre series of arranged meetings and “dialogues” with Chief Clumly; the Sunlight Man teases Chief Clumly with displays of magical prowess (stealing Chief Clumly’s gun and mysteriously appearing and disappearing) and lecturing Chief Clumly about the disparity between human law and universal principles (the former scorned by the Sunlight Man as he alleges obedience to the latter). These secret meetings do not remain so long, and the resultant publicity subjects Chief Clumly to criticism both for meeting with the Sunlight Man and for failing to capture him. The publicity also makes Will and the other Hodge family members aware of the fact that the Sunlight Man is really Taggart, who was disbarred sixteen years earlier and who left New York after the disbarment and after having been hideously burned when his mentally ill wife set fire to their home.

The family members do not reveal the Sunlight Man’s identity; they realize that Taggart returned to Batavia because his wife is now institutionalized there. The family members’ conversation reveals that Taggart left years ago in order to accompany Taggart’s wife as he and her brothers sought treatment for her at various mental institutions around the country; there was no alleviation of her steadily increasing illness. Two family members cannot reveal Taggart’s identity because Taggart keeps Luke Hodge and Millie Hodge, Luke’s...

(The entire section is 955 words.)