The opening pages of Sunnyside, the latest work of Glen David Gold, evoke the cinematic imagery of one of D.W Griffith's silent epics. Written in the spirit of E.L Doctorow's Ragtime, Gold's expansive novel attempts to dissect and fuse together the birth of Hollywood, the escalating events leading to the Great War, and the ascendancy of American capitalism, using a vast array of characters both real and fictional.
The lights dim, the curtains are drawn, and the music picks up; it is Sunday, November 12th, 1916. The date fades. Crescent City, California, just below the Oregon border. The location fades. Names appear on the screen in ordered intervals and then dissipate in rapid succession introducing the cast of characters, in order of appearance, topped off by the leading luminous presence of Charlie Chaplin as himself.
A menacing ocean repeatedly beats against volcanic promontories. The camera pans to a lone lighthouse overlooking the St. George Reef. The characters appear onscreen and we are introduced to Leland Wheeler, his mother, and a few other secondary characters. Wheeler spots a solitary figure on the horizon careening headlong into the tumult wearing "baggy black trousers, a tight morning coat. A moustache. A cane. A derby."
So begins the tale. As we come to understand, appearances like this one were not isolated to St. George Reef. They happened all over the country in more than eight hundred sightings from the Pacific to rural East Texas, to Manhattan, and finally back west to Los Angeles. But the image of Charles Chaplin did more than just frighten, bewilder, and excite thousands of onlookers; it bound a select few of them to an engaging narrative that illustrates the zeitgeist of the Progressive Era's waning years.
In order to capture this moment in history, Gold introduces a dizzying panoply of characters. Leland Wheeler, an 'unfairly handsome' aspiring actor, flees his native Crescent City to land a foot on the big stage. Along the way, he discovers an answer he had been seeking for most of his life through a puzzling telegram from The Onondaga Nation. The message redirects him from being a draft dodger to a hero in the First World War rescuing, undoubtedly, the future savior of Warner Brothers.
Hugo Black, a rebellious bourgeois aesthete and son of a prominent engineer, enlists into the 339th of Detroit thinking he is on his way to France. Instead, Black is rerouted to northern Russia and placed under the command of the indomitable General Edmund Ironside in Operation Archangel, a virtually unknown military campaign whose sole focus was to prevent the Bolsheviks from retaining power following the October Revolution.
The third figure is none other than the enigmatic Charlie Chaplin, whose explorations into his own artistic development in addition to his turbulent love affairs and resistance to studio convention make up the pith of the novel's charm.
The other characters are introduced intermittently, allowing a non-linear storyline to develop around the book's central themes. This can sometimes make each chapter seem as if Gold has bitten off more than he can chew in trying to infuse the novel with so much detail and remain faithful to the age. However, the rousing descriptions of people and events, his capacity for storytelling, and his zeal for the period make this a bold and engrossing tale that succeeds in offering the reader an excellent sketch of a nascent Hollywood, its venerated star, and the harrowing events of the world surrounding them. Sunnyside is a refreshing look at a pivotal moment in our history, one that has shaped, in large part, our love of film, our role on the world's stage, and our enduring culture of celebrity.
This review was originally published in June 2009, and has been updated for the May 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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