(Knopf, 576 pages, $26.95)
By Glen David Gold
The same brand of white-hot prose and ever-so-clever historical fudging that made Glen David Gold’s magical Carter Beats the Devil, a critical and popular smash, is alive and well in Sunnyside. Gold’s second novel is a sprawling, intricately crafted telling of the birth of celebrity culture in 20th century America and its worldwide sociological ramifications, with silent film superstar Charlie Chaplin as his muse.
Although Chaplin is very much the central character, Sunnyside isn’t so much about him as it is about the fact of him and, by extension, the mass hysteria caused by the public’s need to project onto a popular figure their own personal needs and desires. (Something that obsesses our society to this very day.) He was the first figure to enter into the world’s collective consciousness through the intensely personal experience of film and, fittingly, Sunnyside opens with an event of mass hallucination: Chaplin being spotted in over 800 different places at the same time on the same day.
From that point on, the fates of three men intertwine and intermingle—although never fully crashing head-on. Hugo Black, a spoiled, brooding man of priggish intellect and a misplaced sense of superiority. The “unfairly handsome” Leland Wheeler, a pleasantly shallow aspiring actor who believes he is destined for fame for reasons he cannot quite explain. And of course, Chaplin, a man who defies definition.
Their hot pursuit of what eludes them most (fame for Leland, affirmation for Hugo and the meaning of it all for Chaplin) results in an exhaustive narrative that travels from the trenches in France to the Russian wilderness to the virgin orange groves of Hollywood and back again, enlisting an all-star supporting cast from the 1920s including Doug Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Kaiser Wilhelm, Adolph Zukor, Edna Purviance, Frances Marion —and my favorite surprise of the book—Rin Tin Tin.
Gold’s solid realization of Chaplin makes him far and away the strongest component of the novel’s narrative braid—he is at once charming, infuriating, hilarious and miserable and demanding of our every attention. When Chaplin is on the page– just as when he was on the screen– the audience is rapt. Which, to be honest, cripples the book somewhat in that that it undermines the weight and import of the Wheeler and Black characters. One or two of Sunnyside’s strands could have used cutting (Hugo Black feels an afterthought for purposes of being an object lesson) and this voluminous novel is not with out its share of 7th-inning stretch drags, but were are in the end dazzled enough with Gold’s scope and skill, that we can forgive his persistent flirting with the superfluous. (Fans of Carter Beats the Devil forewarned: whereas Carter is engaging and accessible, Sunnyside is much more of a demanding investment.)
Gold’s mind-bending blend of imagination, history, reality, surrealism, drama, comedy, pathos, social comment and a dash of magic results in literary alchemy that is a probing page-turner nonetheless.