By Glen David Gold
Knopf, 560 pp., $26.95
Sunnyside pops and crackles with cleverness. Which probably won't surprise anyone who read Glen David Gold's debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil. Like that novel, Sunnyside is rooted in the popular culture of the American past – the earlier book in the heyday of vaudeville, the new one in the formative days of the American film industry.
The central character in Sunnyside is Charlie Chaplin, whom we first see (or think we see) on November 12, 1916, in a boat off the Northern California coast, being carried to his death on the rocks near the St. George Reef lighthouse. At the same instant, Chaplin is being sighted – or rumored to be present or arriving – in communities across the United States.
Obviously, Chaplin didn't die in 1916, nor was he everywhere at once on that day when, Gold asserts in an end note to his book, such an instance of “mass hysteria” actually occurred. But whether this was a parapsychological phenomenon or just an ingenious publicity stunt doesn't concern Gold. It serves in the novel only to set several stories in motion – that of Chaplin's emergence as a cultural phenomenon, but also that of Leland Wheeler, the lighthouse keeper's son, and that of Hugo Black, who gets caught up by accident in a Chaplin-inspired melee in Beaumont, Texas. Eventually, the tall, handsome Leland, who wants to be a movie star, will wind up in the trenches of France during World War I. And solitary, bookish Hugo will go to Russia as part of the abortive Allied expedition against the Bolsheviks after the revolution of 1917. By accident, Leland finds a kind of vicarious stardom. Hugo's fate is sadder and stranger.
Sunnyside is a rich concoction of a novel, a melange of historical fact, biographical speculation and outright fantasy, teeming with so many characters that a reader welcomes the list of them in the front of the book. But for all that popping and crackling cleverness – or perhaps because of it – it's also a bit ramshackle. The saga of Hugo, for example, sits rather oddly in the narrative, partly because Hugo himself is not very interesting as a character; during the Russian campaign, Gold devotes more attention to the general in charge, Edmund Ironside, than to Hugo.
To the novel's credit, Gold skillfully sets historical figures – of which Ironside is one – amid fictional ones, reinforcing the comparison to writers such as E.L. Doctorow that his first novel elicited. Gold excels at evoking place and milieu. He lives in San Francisco, where much of the past jostles with the present, so it's not surprising that he gets the city's geography right. But he also takes the reader to places like silent-era Hollywood, the front in France, Berlin in the time of the Kaiser, and, in the frozen north of Russia, Arkhangelsk. At the same time, his dialogue often seems anachronistic, perhaps intentionally so, with locutions that sound more like 2006 than 1916. Example: “'What does that mean?' Andy cried. 'What does that even mean?'”
The strongest aspect of his novel is a persuasive take on Chaplin, a man as complicated as his persona, the little tramp, was simple. Gold's Chaplin is an artist with “the easy capacity for seeing kinetic actions first, then creating character and emotion to fill them up, like ladling sand into a sack.” He would launch into a motion picture with only a situation in mind, not a script, and through trial and error – lots and lots of error and miles and miles of film – arrive at a coherent story. “On every movie, his creative spirit followed the same arc: absolute certainty, doubt, dread, horror, despair, new certainty (sending him into a new compass heading that was 45, 90, or even 270 degrees from where his first certainty had sent him), and then the Sargasso. Then something saved him. Then he was home.” Unfortunately for Chaplin, real life, such things as business and family and marriage and politics, can't be fixed in the editing room.
Gold is a wizard at making things up and mixing them in with things not made up. But sometimes the mixture is unstable. There are whole chunks of the novel – the Russian campaign and indeed almost everything involving Hugo Black, and the extended section dealing with the wild West show produced by Leland's father – that seem as if they had thrust themselves irresistibly on Gold's imagination and demanded to be written into the book. But novels can be fixed in the editing room. And Sunnyside, for all its undeniably entertaining flash and dazzle, might have been a better book if it had been.
Unfortunately, some things also get unfixed in the editing room. In the printed version of my review, the following sentence lost its quotation marks:
Gold's Chaplin is an artist with “the easy capacity for seeing kinetic actions first, then creating character and emotion to fill them up, like ladling sand into a sack.”
Much as I'd love to claim Gold's prose as my own, especially that nice "sand in a sack" simile, it's not fair. Apologies all round.