I was wary of Glen David Gold's Sunnyside before I opened it.
For starters, the publishers described it as a romp, too often a synonym for plotless. Secondly, it has a hat on the cover, a bowler unless I miss my guess. It's difficult to see a hat on a book cover and not think of Milan Kundera's classic The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which is hardly a novel you want to try and measure up to.
And finally, the head under the hat belongs to silent-screen star Charlie Chaplin, one of the best known Hollywood figures of the 20th century. Is there anything original left to write about the Little Tramp, even in fiction? As a matter of fact, there is, and Gold writes it well. But what else would you expect from the acclaimed author of Carter Beats the Devil, another fictionalized story of a larger-than-life individual?
This ambitious, super-sized novel tells the story of early Chaplin, the beginning of Hollywood as we know it and a young America getting ready to flex its muscles. Sunnyside starts shortly before America's involvement in World War I, on a day when Chaplin is simultaneously spied in hundreds of places around the country. It is told by a young Chaplin, already a star but not yet a legend; an Adonis-like lighthouse keeper; and an overeducated ne'er-do-well.
While the latter two do cross paths with Chaplin, their story is the story of a war fought by dregs and managed by idiots. We see firsthand how a bewildered and unprepared America blunders onto the road to being a superpower–mostly, it seems, by entering the war after everyone else was tired, dead or not finding enough booze overseas to stay drunk.
Chaplin does not go to war. Instead he tours with archrival Mary Pickford and friend Douglas Fairbanks, raising money for the cause. We travel with Chaplin, underneath that hat with his thoughts as he blunders his way past self-doubt and contempt and into greatness.
The book's title comes from a watershed film by Chaplin–the short movie was one of Chaplin's last before creating his own studio and going on to create longer films. (It is also the name of Washington Irving's grand New York estate, which figures in the novel.) In Gold's version of events, Chaplin films this movie with ambivalence. He wants desperately to kill off the Little Tramp, or at least have him evolve. He is haunted by what a writer told him during a blithely unsuccessful seduction. "Your films," she told him, "are not as good as you are." Her zinger confirmed his suspicions that his genius is wasted on giving the people what they want.
Gold's book does not possess a crescendo finish. Rather than a romp, you might want to call it a ramble, hopping as it does from Hollywood to Russia to France. Sunnyside ends on the brink of something great. When it ends, America begins.
Ian Schwartz writes from San Diego, on the sunny side of the country.