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An ambitious, intelligent, overstuffed novel about three years in the life of Charlie Chaplin

By Yvonne Zipp / May 15, 2009

If the paparazzi had been in business on Nov. 12, 1916, they would have dropped dead from exhaustion. More than 800 imaginary sightings of Charlie Chaplin on that day caused a frenzy across the US – sparking riots and a rumor that the comedian had been lost at sea. Writer Glen David Gold has taken this moment of national hysteria and used it as a jumping-off point for his new World War I epic, Sunnyside.

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On that day, lighthouse keeper Leland Wheeler rows desperately to save Chaplin as his boat goes down off the coast of California, while prim railroad employee Hugo Black gets his clock cleaned in Beaumont, Texas, after irate townsfolk burn a train when Chaplin fails to emerge. That’s probably because he’s safe at home in Los Angeles, fingering his violin while sitting on the stairs at his club and listening to people talk about him.

Gold, whose first novel, “Carter Beats the Devil,” was a piece of showmanship swirling with magic, follows these three men over the next three years of World War I and its aftermath. Chaplin creates three films, including the title flop, while raising money for the war effort and dodging rumors that he’s a coward. (The British citizen actually did present himself for service in the war, but was turned down.)

Wheeler, meanwhile, finds his dreams of becoming an actor stymied by his mother, who dreams of his becoming a soldier. Stationed in France, he’s working as an airplane mechanic when he rescues two newborn puppies from a burning building.

Private Black, meanwhile, finds himself in Archangel, Russia, as part of an invasion designed to drive the Bolsheviks out of power. (The fact that we weren’t at war with Russia was apparently just a technicality.)

“Sunnyside” is unapologetically fat, stuffed with an amazing amount of research on everything from the making of one of Chaplin’s few commercial failures to the history of Liberty Loans. It’s a big book crammed with big ideas and ambitions, and, with its multiple plots and mix of history and fiction, it’s easy to see why many reviews have compared it to the work of E.L. Doctorow.

Gold demands a lot from his readers in terms of concentration and patience – one subplot involving a German proto-critic is thematically relevant but a weary slog. In return, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Rin Tin Tin offer their star wattage in supporting roles, while British Gen. Edmund Ironside strides off with a subplot tucked in the pocket of his oversized fur coat. What “Sunnyside” doesn’t possess is the lightness of touch of its subject – in fact, for a novel starring “the greatest comedian who ever lived,” it’s rather short on humor.


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