Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Sun House, by David James Duncan: Finding Your People, Finding Transcendence

Sun House (out today!) is David James Duncan's first novel in 31 years, since 1992's The Brothers K, one of favorite novels of all time. So it's a good thing that the next novel by a guy who publishes once every three decades is just shy of 800 pages. It's also a good thing that's it's amazing. 

Sun House is a throwback novel to a time when old white men published long, complicated novels about American life. Think Don DeLillo's Underworld or Philip Roth's American Pastoral or even John Steinbeck's East of Eden. It's also a novel of ideas that is often less driven by plot and more propelled by long passages of introspection and characters' interior truth-seeking. 

The search for truth, for transcendence, for what happens when we pass from this life, but also finding meaning while we're here in what is an increasingly corrupt and cynical world, are the cornerstones of this story. One reviewer described this novel as an "openhearted epic about everything."  

They're not wrong, because it's also a story about friendship and love, and finding those in the world who will build you up instead of tear you down. Cling to these people with every ounce of spiritual and physical strength you own, the novel urges. That is, find the people who make you happy and latch onto them like there's no tomorrow. Because, really, there's not. 

Essentially the plot of the novel is thus: Several characters take different paths to finding meaning, and each other, and try to establish a rural Montana utopia. There's a beautiful, brilliant Sanskrit student, a Shakespearean actor and his dog, an ex-Jesuit priest and his street-preacher brother, and many more. 

If you've read this far, you've hopefully come to the conclusion that this is not a beach read. It demands (and deserves!) fully caffeinated attention, not just to fully comprehend but also to make the most of. I spent more than a month with this novel, reading and rereading passages, puzzling out each characters' motivations, wants, and paths to their own versions of peace. Sometimes I got frustrated. Sometimes, like when Duncan is writing some of the best dialogue I've ever read, I was delighted. Overall, I was just awed. It's worth the effort, for sure. After all, it's an achievement 31 years in the making! 


  1. thanks - i’m at page 614 and three weeks in. (i appreciate the font-change technique but my 71yr old eyes needed hi-intensity light to read jervis’ dialogue.)

    1. Great review. Finished the first listen yesterday and will be humming with it for the rest of my life. A masterpiece that leaves me inspired and hopeful for humanity.

  2. Halfway through and my reading experience is mirroring yours, Greg. Not necessarily “easy,” but worth every minute. Nice job of summing up the essence of a long and demanding book in a few hundred words.