SUNNYSIDE by Glen David Gold

Book Quote:

“The world was at war, but the world also seemed like a Charlie Chaplin movie, full of scowlin society matrons, mountainous mustachioed toughs, pretty girls who hadn’t enough to eat, and pies left at dangerous angles at the edges of tables.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett (JAN 2, 2010)

In the first chapter of Gold’s ebullient, complex, over-the-top Charlie Chaplin novel, Chaplin dies in a rowboat accident off the stormy, rocky northern California coast in 1916. At the same moment he also causes a riot in a small town in East Texas and is spotted engaging in various acts of mayhem around the country.

This bout of mass hysteria or “Chaplin-itis,” serves to introduce the primary members of the supporting cast, whose lives will intersect crucially and randomly at least partly because of the events of that day.

Leland Wheeler, the mother-dominated lighthouse keeper who failed to save the seagoing Chaplin hallucination, breaks from the family tradition and runs ashore to Hollywood to become a famous actor.

Hugo Black, the effete son of an ill-paid college professor, has proved clownishly inept at a string of railroad jobs, his mind ever lured away to the more refined world in his imagination. When his train is burned by the mob in the East Texas riot, he loses his last railroad job.

And Rebecca Golod (who is more a recurring imp than a real main character) discovers she has inherited the family calling when she breaks her conman grandfather’s precious spyglass and adroitly manages to blame Hugo Black without saying a word.

The center of the story, of course, is the most famous man in the country, maybe the world, Charlie Chaplin. Two years before, at age 24, he had made his first film. Now, almost 60 films later, he is the highest paid man in America.

But Charlie suffers. Before a party he crams his pockets with conversational gambits designed to dazzle and discomfit his hosts. He loathes Mary Pickford. Her fame nearly eclipses his own and her wholesome, sweetheart image grates on his nerves.

He is an inveterate, obsessional skirt chaser who can’t recall a pretty face. In a scene of high hilarity and charmed misunderstanding, Pickford’s writer captivates Chaplin with clever repartee. She thinks he knows she is Pickford’s writer – his greatest nemesis – while he thinks he’s conducting an artful seduction of a kindred soul.

Charlie is also a driven genius, obsessed by ideas and images. Gold shows him at work on several films, culminating in his 1919 tortured, ambitious, over-budget flop, Sunnyside.

As the world plunges deeper into World War I, Hollywood, a fledgling industry, stands on the brink of soaring flight. The film industry in Europe has been co-opted by propaganda where it hasn’t simply been stifled. But the unhappy population demands the respite of moving pictures more than ever and Hollywood is rushing to comply.

War fever is growing in the US too. Chaplin (a Brit) is condemned for making movies instead of enlisting, but there are rumors that the State Department has asked him to stay out of the fray since he can best serve the war effort through his celebrity and talent. In fact, to ensure his cooperation, they have agreed to prevent his dreaded, beloved mother from visiting by refusing her entry into the country.

Meanwhile, Leland has seen his acting dreams evaporate as a misunderstanding involving his weakness for women (and catalyzed by young Rebecca Golod) forces him to enlist and be sent to France. Here another incident sparked by his weakness for women nearly gets him killed and leads to a fateful rescue.

Hugo Black is as unhappy in the army as he was on the railroad. But as war ends for the rest of the world, Hugo finds himself in the frozen misery of a Russian winter; a place bereft of all comforts and mired in a forgotten bloody fight.

Gold (Carter Beats the Devil) has poured the whole WWI era out on the page – American cowboy shows in Europe, crumbling political structures and the scary new ideas behind Bolshevism, patriotic Liberty Bond rallies and a burgeoning propaganda machine, a runaway train in Russia, grinding misery in France. But above all, there’s the movie business – the stars, the studio system, the glitter, the insatiable demand of the audience, the magic, and the work. Underneath the glamour and flush of triumph is the lingering insecurity; the fear that it’s all just a fad and people will tire of looking at moving pictures by tomorrow or next year.

This is a sparkling, sprawling story with frequent jarring jumps. From Beverly Hills fretting to an eerie tableau of frozen, stripped soldiers, their dead limbs emerging from rock-hard mud, to the angst and intensity of a Chaplin vision to a scene of callous cruelty in the trenches of France, to the backrooms and boardrooms of American business and government. Sometimes we experience the book like a panoramic film that then zooms in on the individual. We find ourselves inside lots of heads, empathizing with a plethora of personalities, ambitions and fears.

Each element engages the reader; the writing is dazzling, visual and intense; the history is thorough and authentic, the ideas are ambitious. While it often feels like trying to hold on to too much at once during a bumpy, spectacular ride, in the end it feels like you’ve been someplace.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 61 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf; 1 edition (May 5, 2009)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AMAZON PAGE: Sunnyside
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Glen David Gold

Glen David Gold blog

EXTRAS: Guardian interview with Glen David Gold
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read an excerpt from Carter Beats the Devil


January 2, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Facing History, Literary, Unique Narrative

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