August 10, 2009

BOOKS: Sunnyside, Glen David Gold (2009)

As he did in his first novel, Carter Beats the Devil, Gold gives us a mix of historical figures and fictional characters, set in a story that's partly based on history and partly based in Gold's imagination. I find it frustrating that Gold is so disinclined to tell us which parts of the story are real and which are made up; his author's note at the end of the book is marginally less stingy with such details than he was with Carter, but not by much.

Our story this time is set just as America is about to enter World War I, and begins with a mass delusion that swept America -- Charlie Chaplin was sighted in over 800 locations across the country on the same day. (As farfetched as that sounds, it apparently does come from the historical side of the ledger and not the imaginative.) Our three central characters (Chaplin being one) are caught up in that event. Leland Wheeler is a lighthouse keeper with dreams of becoming an actor; he sees Chaplin drown in a whirlpool. Hugo Black is a railroad engineer assigned to crowd control in a small Texas town that's about to be visited by Chaplin.

Wheeler and Black are both historical figures. By the end of Sunnyside, Leland will have changed his name to Lee Duncan and be headed for a career in show business, though not in the way he'd hoped. Hugo is, I assume, the future Supreme Court justice, though I don't believe that Gold ever specifically identifies him as such; he's the right age, and enough of the details of his life are correct. (Some are very much not -- the real Hugo Black never saw combat -- but that's just Gold being Gold.)

My biggest problem with the novel is that the three stories of Charlie, Lee, and Hugo never come together in any cohesive way; that day of delusion that opens the novel is the closest the three men will ever come to having much in common, and their stories diverge from there. Lee and Hugo both end up in the military, Lee in France and Hugo in northern Russia; and Charlie continues to make movies, struggling to find his artistic voice. I found the Chaplin segments the most entertaining, and would have been much happier with them on their own.

There is much marvelous writing here, and Gold is often at his best in long set pieces -- Chaplin at a Hollywood party, Hugo's feast with three young Russian princesses (a meal which may or may not be nothing more than an absinthe-induced fantasy). Gold brings his historical characters to vivid life; I especially enjoyed the rivalry between Chaplin and Mary Pickford, who has all the success he longs for.

Sunnyside is a bit bloated, and feels more like three interwoven stories than a single novel. But when it's good, it's very good indeed, and though it's not entirely successful, I am happy to have read it.

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