by Zack Smith
by Glen David Gold
Alfred A. Knopf, 559 pp.
Glen David Gold’s first novel, Carter Beats the Devil, was a marvelously over-the-top historical fiction that by the time you were finished with it, had educated you thoroughly in the workings of stage magicians, the Secret Service, the early years of television and much more.
By the end of Gold’s follow-up, Sunnyside, you will know quite a bit about Charlie Chaplin, British general Edmund Ironside, psychologist Hugo Münsterberg and a great deal of other things, not the least of which is the birth of the studio system. Even Rin Tin Tin shows up. If this sounds like a heady brew, you’re right.
Sunnyside starts with a real-life incident in 1916, where Chaplin was sighted in 800 places simultaneously, prompting mass hysteria. Chaplin himself figures as one of the three major narrative figures in the novel, the other two being Hugo Black, a soldier under Ironside’s command, and Leland Wheeler, who will wind up meeting a very unlikely movie star while servicing airplanes in France. And then there’s Sunnyside itself, one of Chaplin’s oddest films, whose filming contrasts with the actor’s complicated and tragic personal life.
This is, as you might have guessed, a bit overstuffed—the sequences with Hugo rank alongside the Antarctica bits in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay as one of the longer military digressions in a good historical novel—but Sunnyside, like Carter Beats the Devil, has a way of making you feel wiser for having read it.
At times, it’s difficult to tell where the truth ends and fiction begins, but the effect is like being caught up in the whirlwind of the early 20th century. You’ll come away with a newfound appreciation for the history of liberty loans, diamond cutting and Wild West shows. It’s a powerful look at both Chaplin the man and the power of cinema. Not only that, but you’ll pick up some nifty trivia that will come in handy at parties.