Glen David Gold, author of the best seller Carter Beats the Devil
, now gives us a grand entertainment with the brilliantly realized figure of Charlie Chaplin at its center: a novel at once cinematic and intimate, heartrending and darkly comic, that captures the moment when American capitalism, a world at war, and the emerging mecca of Hollywood intersect to spawn an enduring culture of celebrity.
Sunnyside opens on a winter day in 1916 during which Charlie Chaplin is spotted in more than eight hundred places simultaneously, an extraordinary delusion that forever binds the overlapping fortunes of three men: Leland Wheeler, son of the world’s last (and worst) Wild West star, as he finds unexpected love on the battlefields of France; Hugo Black, drafted to fight under the towering General Edmund Ironside in America’s doomed expedition against the Bolsheviks; and Chaplin himself, as he faces a tightening vise of complications—studio moguls, questions about his patriotism, his unchecked heart, and, most menacing of all, his mother.
The narrative is as rich and expansive as the ground it covers, and it is cast with a dazzling roster of both real and fictional characters: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Adolph Zukor, Chaplin’s (first) child bride, a thieving Girl Scout, the secretary of the treasury, a lovesick film theorist, three Russian princesses (gracious, nervous, and nihilist), a crew of fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants moviemakers, legions of starstruck fans, and Rin Tin Tin.
By turns lighthearted and profound, Sunnyside is an altogether spellbinding novel about dreams, ambition, and the dawn of the modern age.
Glen David Gold on Sunnyside
Charlie Chaplin became the repository of the soul of the 20th century through an especially mysterious alchemy. In trying to explain this, most commentators eventually turn their eyes away, as if wrapping their heads around it is too impossible, too much like explaining, well, magic
Which is where I come in. I'm a fan of the inexplicable. When Chaplin became the most famous man in the world, he surpassed the previous most famous man in the world, Houdini. And yet no one has really tried to grasp—in a novel&mdash:the consequences of the very first uncontrolled frisson of fame. Perhaps because few authors grew up among Hollywood-style genius and madness, Chaplin has rarely been used in fiction. But I lived in Hollywood (the very hospital I was born in later became the Scientology West Coast headquarters). My great aunt Ingrid, a journalist, was Chaplin's neighbor in Switzerland; family legend has it that he dictated parts of his autobiography to her.
So: in 1914, Chaplin was barely even a film comedian, Hollywood was a farm town where the lights went out at 8 o'clock, and America was more or less a great big cornfield with an occasional city poking among its rows. And in 1918, Chaplin was a genius, Hollywood was the world's aspirational mecca, and America... well, America was in serious trouble, in that it thought it had won the War.
Sunnyside is the story of this rapid transformation as Chaplin and his adopted country lose, one more devastating time, their innocence.
While I was working on Sunnyside, I realized to my embarrassment I was writing about something of importance. Try as I might to keep it light entertainment (and yes, there are train chases, dancing princesses, clever jewel robberies, crossbow executions, rescues at sea and battles with flamethrowers), it turned out that I was writing a novel of ideas. It relies less on plot than character, less on explosions (but I did mention the flamethrowers, no?) than on epiphanies, less on clever twists than on an ever-deepening worldview. I wanted to explain how only America both wins and loses wars at the very same moment.
Sunnyside plunders film theory, fairytales, arcane Hollywood business practices and the private lives of its most famous citizens so I can question in the end whether the universe actually has meaning, or if narrative is our last, best attempt to beat back a crushing loneliness that almost none of us can comprehend.
Oh, almost none of us—except Charlie Chaplin. —Glen David Gold
(Photo © Jonathan Sprague)
Starred Review. From the bestselling author of Carter Beats the Devil
comes an elegant blend of reality and fiction, war drama and Hollywood glamour. Gold sets into motion his cameo-heavy, multipronged plot with a bizarre incident in winter 1916, when Charlie Chaplin is spotted simultaneously in 800 places across the country, causing mass hysteria and panic. The primary story line follows Chaplin's struggles with women, creativity, film budgets and his opposition to the war. In a second, intersecting world, Leland Wheeler moves from the hinterlands to San Francisco with dreams of being a film star. He rechristens himself Leland Duncan, and though he gets shipped to the battlefields of France, the two ailing puppies he finds over there later provide his entrée to the movie biz. Finally, Hugo Black is a Detroit gentleman who volunteers for the infantry in an uncharacteristic whim and finds himself fighting in America's secret invasion of Russia. The result is a dramatic narrative of chance and coincidence, and also a serious reconstruction of an evolving social landscape. It is wholly exhausting and entirely satisfying: to borrow an idea from Chaplin's great personal-artistic quest in the book, it's a work as good as Gold. (May)
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