Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 955
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 mother and Will’s former wife, bound and gagged at Luke’s farm while Taggart constructs his magical devices and meets with, tantalizes, and lectures Chief Clumly. After several days, a neighbor, Mr. Hardesty, comes to visit, but when he recognizes Taggart as the now-notorious Sunlight Man, Nick also kills Mr. Hardesty, again without Taggart’s approval—but also without his condemnation.
In the intervals between meetings with the Sunlight Man, Chief Clumly finally learns that his tormentor is Taggart Hodge. Chief Clumly traces the movements of the wife, Kathleen Paxton, from hospital to hospital, and he discovers that a man fitting the Sunlight Man’s description always accompanies her. Chief Clumly then visits Kathleen, finding her virtually comatose, and at his next meeting with the Sunlight Man, Chief Clumly reveals his knowledge. He then manages to disarm Taggart, but due to Taggart’s eloquent arguments and due to sympathy with the tragic circumstances which make Taggart almost insane, Chief Clumly allows Taggart to escape, despite the fact that Taggart is an accessory to several murders. Such continued failure to apprehend the Sunlight Man, despite known meetings with him, along with general neglect of his other duties in his absorption with Taggart, causes Chief Clumly to be fired by Batavia’s mayor. Clumly is still convinced that Taggart deserves better than the fate the American criminal justice system would impose on him. Taggart’s philosophical arguments affect Clumly and make Clumly more humane.
Meanwhile, Taggart remembers, despite his semideranged condition, why he came back to Batavia and what he did just prior to writing “love” in the street. After his years of travel, as he attempted to help his deranged wife in defiance of her domineering and vicious father, her father found them and took Kathleen back to Batavia and had her given shock treatment. That treatment destroyed what remained of her consciousness. Taggart also remembers that he learned that Mr. Paxton had Taggart’s sons killed after the fire at Taggart’s home. Taggart also recalls that he strangled Kathleen’s father the evening before his deranged, ironic street-writing. Aware now of his need to escape from New York before his killing of Mr. Paxton becomes known (and, in fact, Clumly already suspected), Taggart enlists Luke as a getaway driver. Luke recognizes his uncle, however, and being semisuicidal, anyway, due to the effect his parents’ troubled marriage has upon him, Luke decides to drive his truck off a bridge and kill himself and Taggart, thereby preserving the Hodge family from the infamy of public awareness of Taggart’s identity. A premonition causes Taggart and Nick to jump from the truck prior to the wreck, however, and they escape death. The knowledge that he indirectly caused his nephew’s death deeply affects Taggart, however, and he returns to Batavia in order to surrender. Unable to resist one more trick against the police, however, Taggart steals Officer Figlow’s gun and hides it in a desk drawer. Figlow finds the gun and, terrified at seeing the Sunlight Man and not realizing the Sunlight Man’s peaceful intent, Figlow grabs the gun and kills Taggart. All that remains is for Clumly to deliver the speech to the Dairyman’s League that he long planned; he makes the speech an eloquent, impassioned eulogy and defense of the Sunlight Man and a plea for a more concerned and enlightened American system of criminal justice.
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