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BOOK REVIEW

Legendary figures in war and in pictures

Glen David Gold keys his novel to Charlie Chaplin. Glen David Gold keys his novel to Charlie Chaplin. (Jonathan Sprague)
By Julie Wittes Schlack
June 25, 2009
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In the opening of “Sunnyside,’’ the new novel from Glen David Gold, the fatherless son of a lighthouse keeper tries in vain to rescue a man whose leaky boat is about to sink off the Northern California coast. To Leland Wheeler, the would-be rescuer, the frantic figure he’s watching through his telescope who “tipped his hat as if he and the sail were engaged in polite social discourse’’ appears to be Charlie Chaplin. That same day - Nov. 12, 1916 - an enraged crowd in Beaumont, Texas, destroys an arriving train upon discovering that, contrary to their expectations, it does not carry Chaplin as a passenger. During that same 24-hour period, the Little Tramp is also seen or paged in more than 800 hotels across the country.

What better way to open a book about Hollywood and World War I than with a mass delusion! And how fitting that Chaplin should be one of the central characters in a novel as brilliantly imagined, comedic, and poignant as this one.

When we meet him in 1916, Chaplin is already richer and more famous than any other entertainer has ever been. But unimpressed by his own accomplishments, he is on a perpetual quest to exercise (and sometimes exorcise) his genius, prove his patriotism, escape his horrific childhood and mentally ill mother, satisfy and regret his desires, and always, to create meaningful and perfect work.

Crossing his imagined path on the book’s opening day are the other principal protagonists: Wheeler, a handsome young man who sets out to be a movie star and ends up a reluctant soldier, and Hugo Black, a dandy from Detroit (and junior engineer on the train that is mobbed in Beaumont) whose outlook and character are transformed in the northern Russian winter of 1918 on his battalion’s fool’s errand to defeat the Bolsheviks. Driving and undermining and crowding their journeys is a vast cast of characters, everyone from Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford to legendary British General Edmund Ironside, with brief and sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying cameos by German psychologist-turned-film critic T.H. Münsterberg, the imagined Buffalo Bill Cody wannabe, Wild Duncan Cody, and Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Plot is incidental. Chaplin makes movies; soldiers go to war; con men and women run scams; a desperate Hugo Black has a surreal “dinner’’ with three doomed Russian princesses; Hollywood tycoons conspire; and throughout it all, people make, love, and live for celluloid dreams.

No, what’s astonishing is the cast of characters, both real and imagined. Gold’s knack for insinuating himself in their minds, for seeing the world through so many different sets of eyes, is thrilling. He is not a painterly writer, but a cinematic one, rendering scenes as mundane as a dusty Southern California ranch or as otherworldly as a film reel lying on the snow on a frozen Arctic night, with exquisite vividness. And most compelling of all is Chaplin, whose improvisational and physical genius leap off the page.

It takes courage to take on material that has been written about so often by so many, and brilliance to capture readers from generations for whom the Little Tramp and the Great War are no more resonant than Plato or the Crusades. Fortunately for us, in “Sunnyside,’’ Gold demonstrates that he has both.

Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.

SUNNYSIDE

By Glen David Gold

Knopf, 559 pp., $26.95

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