Authorial ambition can be a two-pronged sword. Too little reach can collapse a novel into itself, substance never surfacing from the shallows of limited vision. Too much sweep can act upon the narrative like a herd of restive broncos breaking free from the corral, never to be united again.
Glen David Gold obviously has no problem embracing the big picture. His meaty historical fiction Sunnyside takes in World War I and the concurrent rise of commercial Hollywood, the interlocking strands of capitalism and communism, entrepreneurship both legal and illegal, and the illusory nature of romance as seen through the episodic travails of a slew of protagonists, including (as if small thinking was banished altogether from the novel’s panorama) Charlie Chaplin — whose 1919 short film Sunnyside lends the novel its title. But aiming big and actually achieving the big payoff isn’t an assured equation.
As in his lauded debut Carter Beats the Devil, Gold draws inspiration from the early decades of the 20th century, a period of seemingly inexhaustible riches for, yes, an ambitious author. And like Carter, Sunnyside has few qualms about incorporating actual personages, both famous and obscure, while playing loose with hard-and-fast facts. Not that the true saga of Leland Duncan is such a part of our national identity that the division between reality and fiction comes deeply into play. Duncan, the man who found and trained Rin Tin Tin, the greatest of all Hollywood animal stars, is but one of many characters in this novel who are drawn to the call of the silver screen. Although their paths may or may not cross, Duncan joins a host of others — the pioneering film theorist Hugo Munsterberg, actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo, and Field Marshal William Edmund Ironside (to name just a few of the bona fide historical figures) — who are caught up in the inexorable pull of twin engulfing presences: the movies and the war.
Five hundred and fifty pages allow Gold plenty of room to thicken his expansive plots and wrap his lustrous prose over a narrative vista that keeps unspooling like endless footage from a phantom film projector. Public riots, Wild West shows, jewelry heists, Byzantine business transactions, blundering military campaigns, illicit romances, join domineering mothers, whores, moronic soldiers, and visionary filmmakers, not to mention puppies and children, in a consistently entertaining, and often moving, series of tales that unfortunately feels naggingly just like that: a series of independent and self-contained vignettes rather than a monumental, unified novel. You can bask in Gold’s fine-tuned words:
If in July 1914, you asked the average Berliner which was coming first, rain or war, he might look to the slate-colored sky and note that at least no rain was expected today. With countries lining up to defend each other from blows no one had yet inflicted, all the countries of Europe were like children at the dinner table, waiting for Father to get the belt.
But time and again, after successfully luring us in with the engrossing situation of one of his major characters, Gold scoots us off to look in on another of his lesser cast members.
Ironically, what ultimately trips Gold up is his masterful ability to bring certain characters to life and to evoke their circumstances and milieu with urgency and tangible flavor. Which brings us to Charlie Chaplin. A gift to any author, be he a historian or a novelist, Chaplin was so much larger than life that, from a present-day perspective, he appears more mythical than factual. And Gold adroitly captures the uneasy mix of genius, guilt, unerring certainty, crippling insecurity, intellectual pretension, grass-roots instinct, lust, and tenderness that made up the conflicted personality of this titan of film art.
Gold also catches the celebrity scene of the late 1910s with affection — a strange, Gatsby-esque party is handled with marvelous assurance (“The food, courtesy of Goldwyn, looked magnificent, and players dressed as preening French chefs were in line to serve minuscule portions while intoning to each customer exactly how thankful he or she should be to receive them?. No one was eager to be first, but perhaps fifty were willing to be second”), as is a public fundraising event in San Francisco that pits Chaplin against Mary Pickford; the world of the studio underlings also feels freshly imagined. Chaplin’s interaction with fellow star Douglas Fairbanks, his box office rival Pickford, and his brother and manager Syd, reveals Gold’s depth of feeling for his characters and his obvious love of movie culture.
In skillfully transforming these iconic figures into fascinating flesh and blood, though, Gold inadvertently shortchanges other characters. The lesser mortals — both fictional and historical — just don’t cut it, remaining uneasily in the shadow of the screen giants. We crave more of the Hollywood story. Because, as Gold so eloquently posits, film has kept the world in a magical enchantment from the beginning:
The Iris of the camera blazed outward, and then drew in, a tightening circle on the happily-ever-after kiss, a goodbye kiss the brought tears in a tiny church in Russia, in New York City, in the Dutch East Indies, and as far away as the cradle of civilization itself, where young, amazed nomads in tents watched and wiped tears from their eyes, there in the desert sands of Mesopotamia.
Likewise the vagaries of war, in this case the misguided military campaign that found an international force, including American troops, invading Russia in an attempt to suppress the Bolshevik uprising. This little-remembered event, a sideshow of the First World War, is, in Gold’s hands, cast as an obvious historical parallel to the current conflict in Iraq.
“When are we leaving?”
“When the Russians can defend themselves”
Ironside, the commander in charge, emerges as another fascinatingly large-scale figure that the author never forgets to infuse with humanity. He’s a superb character, the situation he finds himself in is grimly gripping, and again, we crave more.
It’s frustrating. There’s both a satisfying Hollywood novel and a substantial war novel residing in the consistently engaging but diffuse Sunnyside. Grabbing for more, Gold doesn’t seem to acknowledge the riches he already has before him.