- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 31, 2009

SUNNYSIDE: A NOVEL
By Glen David Gold
Knopf, $26.95, 576 pages
REVIEWED BY SONNY BUNCH

Glen David Gold’s debut novel, “Carter Beats the Devil,” was a surprise hit. Critically beloved and a commercial success, Mr. Gold crafted a fictional narrative from several larger-than-life figures of the early 20th century, including President Harding and magician Charles Carter. A tale of loss and love with a dash of mystery, “Carter Beats the Devil” also provided a glimpse of America just preceding a time of great change.

For his second act, Mr. Gold has skipped ahead a few years to America during World War I. He has again borrowed liberally from figures in American history — movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford rub shoulders with Treasury Secretary William McAdoo. This time, Mr. Gold’s ambitions stretch far beyond America’s shores — perhaps too far.

Of the several problems with “Sunnyside,” its lack of focus ranks first. It is marginally centered on the exploits of Chaplin and his peers as they struggle with their artistic limitations while simultaneously attempting to help McAdoo raise funds for the war. But the action never lingers, and Mr. Gold flings the reader around the world to the killing fields of Europe and a long-forgotten campaign in Russia.

When the action slows down for a moment, “Sunnyside” can be both riveting and heart-rending. Charlie’s desire to be taken seriously as an artist, and the conflict that creates with his public persona and the whims of the masses, will be familiar to anyone who has struggled against the limitations placed upon them by society’s expectations. Not content to be the clown, he wows his fellows in Hollywood with a Trotskyite speech and considers himself as a budding intellectual.



But that persona is never accepted by the public, and it tears Chaplin up inside. Consider this scene, set at a war- bond drive at which Chaplin has appeared to raise funds for the troops; a psychologist named Hugo Munsterberg is enraptured by Chaplin’s performance, but the average San Franciscan most definitely is not:

“‘Do the walk, Charlie.’ A voice from the crowd said this helpfully. It was like suggesting he duck an oncoming pie, or turn around when Eric Campbell was about to squeeze him to death. Chaplin didn’t hear it at first — his own voice was droning on and on — but then someone else yelled it — ‘Do the walk’ — and then several people — ‘Do the walk, do the walk.’ There was nothing unkind in it. Charlie’s eyes swept across the hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands of upturned faces. His gaze fell toward the stage platform, and, for the briefest electric shock of a moment, he and Munsterberg locked eyes, and Munsterberg saw, in slow motion, a human heart breaking.

“Chaplin turned his toes out. He stiffened his quadriceps. He shot out his knees, and ambled as if on a Sunday promenade, twirling the empty air as if he had a cane. He went to all four corners of the stage, each time bouncing on one leg, three times, and when he was finished, he had a brilliant smile on his face that came, Munsterberg knew, from elsewhere.”

It’s reminiscent of Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” in which Sueleen Gay, the self-deluded and talentless “singer” who thinks she’s arriving at a stag club to perform a musical number, is pressured into performing a striptease for a gaggle of political fundraisers. Tears running down her face, she complies, realizing that she’s nothing more than what the mob wants her to be. Charlie’s in the same boat.

When Mr. Gold sticks to scenes like this, “Sunnyside” works marvelously. He has a knack for bringing to life the inner thoughts of his subjects, their own personal agonies and ecstasies. Unfortunately, he’s not content to stick with Chaplin and his pals. Much of “Sunnyside” is consumed by an account of the North Russian Campaign, an offshoot of WWI in which Allied forces sided with the anti-Bolsheviks in the Russian revolution.

When WWI ended, the campaign continued. Mr. Gold sees it as the first in a continued series of failed attempts to bring democracy to an unwilling and hostile populace. As he writes, “it was agreed that the experiment in democracy had not yet been given a chance to flourish. The Armistice did not apply to the North Russian Allied Expeditionary Force. They were to continue the fight for freedom until Bolshevism — Communism, as it was now called — had been strangled in its crib.”

The snide tone that Mr. Gold adopts is in questionable taste: The tens of millions who perished in Stalin’s gulags, during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and in the proxy wars of the late-20th century probably wish that Communism had been snuffed out. More annoying is his attempt to tie the Russian expedition to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But most vexing is his solution to the dangers posed by illiberal states: cultural diffusion.

“All around the world, in grottoes and houses and mudflat huts, it was the same: there were groups watching Mary Pickford find her man, and they were welling up with tears in all parts of the globe … as far away as the cradle of civilization itself, where young, amazed nomads in tents watched and wiped tears from their eyes, there on the desert sands of Mesopotamia,” he writes.

It’s fair to ask whether Hollywood — especially in its early 21st century, everything-goes mode — has much to offer a part of the world largely influenced by Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist radical who saw everything he hated about the West and America brought to life at a 1950s church dance.

The Russian portions of “Sunnyside” read as though Mr. Gold stumbled upon some obscure historical moment, thought “History repeats itself!” and added it to give his book greater intellectual heft. He would have been better served saving this for a separate work — or, perhaps, leaving it alone altogether. Like Charlie Chaplin, however, Mr. Gold thinks he has something meaningful to say. Who are we, the lowly masses, to judge his delusions?

Sonny Bunch is a reporter on the features desk at The WashingtonTimes.

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