Review

Sunnyside

by Glen David Gold

Glen David Gold’s bestselling first novel, CARTER BEATS
THE DEVIL, was widely heralded as one of the most promising debuts
of the decade, compared to such other masters of the historical
epic as E. L. Doctorow and Steven Millhauser. It’s been eight
years since that book’s publication, but the wait is finally
over for his many fans, as he delivers with a second novel,
SUNNYSIDE, that more than fulfills the promise of its
predecessor.

As in CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL, SUNNYSIDE is based on several real
historical events and personas (Gold separates fact from fiction in
an afterword), some of which will be familiar to 21st-century
readers, others of which are more obscure to all but historians of
the early 20th century. The novel takes place during the heyday of
Charlie Chaplin’s career and the dawn of America’s
involvement in what had been, up until then, a strictly European
war.

In a structure that parallels an old-time film lineup (complete
with newsreel, a feature and credits), Gold seems to effortlessly
move back and forth between the intrigues and obsessions of Chaplin
and his Hollywood circle (which includes archenemy Mary Pickford
and her love interest, Douglas Fairbanks, but also Treasury
Secretary William McAdoo) and the alternating buffoonery and horror
of war on several fronts. Throughout, he shows the connections
between the burgeoning Hollywood machine and the war effort, both
directly (film stars raise money for the war bond effort by staging
outrageous stunts; producers offer to donate profits to the war
effort but suddenly, mysteriously, stop making any money; a dog on
the battlefield becomes Hollywood’s biggest star) and
thematically.

For example, Gold repeatedly, and often profoundly, illustrates
how the country’s new perception of life-as-feature-film
affected how decision makers chose to narrate the real-world events
of world war: “If the world was a stage and America newly in
the business of making pictures, then imagine the concept of the
stand-in writ by lightning: America turning the future into its own
motion picture. The country was now powerful enough to structure
the peace that would surely arise after the war ended. And
that…meant imposing narrative upon what was essentially
chaos.” By turning the war into a Hollywood epic, complete
with happy ending, America’s powerbrokers turn horrific
events into comedic farce, romance and tragedy, rewriting the
narrative of chaos in terms that people back home could
understand.

Like Chaplin’s own films, Gold’s novel is filled
simultaneously with a kind of knowing slapstick sensibility and a
genuine, if understated, pathos. There are moments of sheer
absurdity and laugh-out-loud comedy, there are one-liners that
demand to be read aloud, there are moments of heartbreak, fear and
real emotion. In short, Gold refocuses history through his own
idiosyncratic viewfinder, offering readers genuine meaning, clarity
and understanding through his sharply focused fictional lens.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011

Sunnyside
by Glen David Gold

  • Publication Date: May 5, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0307270688
  • ISBN-13: 9780307270689