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

Sunnyside By Glen David Gold Alfred A. Knopf 576 pp., $26.95

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.

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.

Gold instead goes in for spectacular set pieces that would have D.W. Griffith running for his camera: a dinner hosted by princesses in an abandoned Russian monastery; a Wild West show performed before Kaiser Wilhelm on the eve of World War I; a battle featuring a runaway train; a Hollywood party complete with tableaux vivants and dead trees planted on the beach for scenery and moral instruction.

“Griffith knew how to create the most ornate spectacles ... hours of swinging braziers and slaves banging on gongs, chariots pulled by butterflies, and the audience was fooled into embracing it simply because of its size,” Chaplin thinks before heading off to the party. “Where was the small moment, the flirtatious smile not returned, the cuckold discovering a cuff link and saying nothing, the smile of a baby that somehow chills the bones? This was the hardest way to make things.”

With 576 pages, Gold finds time to fit in some small moments as well, and he’s got the last item on that list in spades.

Not unusually for a novel set largely on battlefields, the female characters do not get equal billing. Girl Scout/teenage confidence trickster Rebecca Golod, who’s a witness to the Beaumont riot and subsequently shows up in San Francisco and L.A., never gets more than a few pages at a stretch.

Screenwriter and journalist Frances Marion has one evening to spar verbally with Chaplin, enchanting both him and the reader. But she heads off to France to report on the war, while he pursues teenage ingénue Mildred Harris. (This is not a fault of Gold’s plotting: Chaplin married several teenagers, and Mildred was the first.)

Decades after his death, Chaplin’s image is still iconic, but Gold isn’t content to ride on the Tramp’s coattails. He painstakingly re-creates the elaborate and expensive process of creating genius – whether it involves letting 21 dogs run loose in the studio for weeks or Chaplin calling for angels and stringing actresses up (literally – on telephone poles) for hours until they pass out – before deciding that he doesn’t need them in the scene after all.

And after the muses and harpists and museum sets, there’s a plaintive realization: “I just want something small.” Gold also captures Chaplin’s intelligence, personal darkness, self-centeredness, and the intense focus that led him to make 65 films before the age of 30.

“The theory of humor that no one else seems to understand,” Chaplin lectures an exhausted Zasu Pitts after a grueling day in which the then-unknown actress was forced to wear nothing but body paint, “you don’t just throw a pie. No, you have me attempt to throw a pie at an enemy ... and instead on the wind-up, it drops behind me, and I slip on it, and it shoots like a watermelon seed to hit a passerby, who knocks his glass of water over on my enemy, which causes them to engage in a fistfight.”

In an era when comedies are more likely to fling fecal matter than baked goods, that’s a lesson worth repeating.

“All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl,” Chaplin once remarked. There were times when I wished Gold had taken more of his character’s advice on creating art, and “Sunnyside” definitely suffers from overabundance. But it’s full of intelligence, ambition, and generosity – and there aren’t too many novels that are so stuffed with those that they bulge at the seams.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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