Glen David Gold's first book "Carter Beats the Devil", published in 2001, is an amazing feat of storytelling, giving life to real people and spinning new adventures for them. It is easily one of the best books I have ever read and has a place on my Top Ten Favorite Books list.
His follow-up "Sunnyside"? Not so much.
I became very excited when I saw that Gold was publishing a new book and that Charlie Chaplin would be one of the central characters. I instantly requested the book from Amazon Vine and delved into the lengthy story as soon as I received it.
There are occasions when an artist receives a lot of success from a premiere work; so much success that they either feel a little guilty or they begin to worry about following it up. How will they ever maintain the momentum? So with their follow-up, they try to create something 'meaningful', something so good, so creative, so involving in an effort to feel like they have finally earned the acclaim they received for the earlier work. Usually, this results in efforts that are poorly conceived and received, boring, plodding, uninspired. There are many examples of films, books, television shows, records that fit this bill. "Sunnyside" isn't a terrible book, but it falls victim to this Sophomore Slump.
Gold seems to go overboard to show us how much he can fit into a single book. You often hear of old films that have "Casts of Thousands". Well, there may not be that many characters in Gold's "Sunnyside", but there are at least a hundred or more.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Many books have presented great stories with many dozens of characters (some of James Michener's books come immediately to mind) but they usually have a significant reason for populating the pages of the book you are holding in your hand. They are usually related or involved in a similar cause or working towards a similar goal. That is what is lacking in "Sunnyside".
The story begins with a mass sighting of the famous film comedian Charlie Chaplin. Leland Howard, the son of a lighthouse keeper on the coast of Oregon thinks he spots the Little Fellow in a small dingy, adrift in the roaring wake of the Pacific Ocean. An entire town in Texas has come out to greet Chaplin's train at the station. When he doesn't appear, a riot breaks out and a member of the train's staff, Hugo, is rushed to the hospital. A young girl, the daughter of Jewish immigrants, Rebecca is at the same train station and meets Hugo. But Chaplin is really sitting on the roof of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, his current home, looking out as the sun rises over the farms and orange groves stretched out around him. Chaplin has just signed a new contract and built his own studio and wonders how he will ever be able to make so many films. Edna Purviance, his longtime leading lady joins him and helps him build up his courage. This is an interesting, and unique method of introducing us to all of the major characters in the story. And if Gold concentrated on this small group, the tale would be a lot better.
But he overpopulates the story and not every person has a direct correlation to the main story. In fact, this is probably the bigger problem with "Sunnyside". What connection do Chaplin, Leland and Hugo have in common? For something like this story to work, we have to have some link between them, there has to be some reason for us to care about and follow the adventures of the Hugo and Leland. But Gold doesn't seem to really have some grand connection between them. Yes, World War I affects each of them in very different ways, but why and how are they connected? If there is a connection, I missed it.
As we follow Chaplin, Leland and Hugo throughout their adventures, Gold throws a lot of other characters into the mix, some of which are real people important and pivotal in history. The book is called "Sunnyside" which is the name of a place where Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford have a dalliance before becoming a couple. It is also the name of one of Chaplin's films, a film considered a lesser effort. If you know anything about Chaplin, you probably now that he used his independence to constantly tinker with his films, to work out the story as the camera rolled, often spending weeks and months on set pieces only to scrap them when a new idea came into his head. He did this in his pursuit of perfection and his pursuit of a legacy. He wants to be remembered and constantly fears that his films aren't good enough. Along the way, we meet his best friend Douglas Fairbanks and we meet his new lover, Mary Pickford, leading to an interesting look at the relationship between the three, all of whom are recruited for a War Bond drive by Bill McAdoo. McAdoo realizes very early on that the war effort will need some star power (a concept as relatively new as the idea of making movies) and recruits the three biggest stars. But Chaplin both hates and fears Pickford; she seems to be more popular and the two have an ongoing feud to see who can win more. McAdoo also realizes early on that the studios are a necessary evil and runs into an early example of some tricky accounting. Chaplin and his brother are constantly working to have their mother immigrate to the US and this is the emotional climax of his story.
As a young boy, Hugo seems strange. He and his family attend an early screening of an anthropologist's early films, but then he seems to become a little elitist. When he is ultimately sent to war (and ends up in the Ukraine) with a bunch of other soldiers, he seems to have great difficulty getting along with the other men, men who are less educated. This wouldn't be a bad thing if Hugo didn't seem so derisive of his fellow Americans, worried that they are setting a bad example for the Brits on the same ship. Hugo's story is the least interesting and seems to meander the most, but it also provides a way for Gold to introduce General Pershing, and have him play a small role in the story.
Leland is, for the most part, the most interesting. Growing up in a lighthouse with his mother, the keeper, he has a bit of a sheltered childhood. When he gets a bit older, he begins to dream of becoming an actor, something his mother steadfastly refuses to let him do. He meets with a man who promises he will get him screen tests in Hollywood, as long as Leland pays him his fee of $5. Later, he tries to become a "Four Minute Man", men who travel the country entertaining audiences while the projectionist changes the reels of the film. Their mission is to inspire patriotism. One thing leads to another and Leland ends up in San Francisco just as the War Bond Rally comes to town. Soon, Leland finds himself enlisted and he is stationed in France, working as a technician on airplanes. As he and his pilot try to escape a burning winery, Leland finds a litter of German shepherd puppies. He is able to save two, a brother and sister, and begins training them. One of these puppies will eventually become Rin Tin Tin, at one point, the most famous movie star in the world.
Chaplin's story is also interesting but Gold relies very heavily on lost footage already displayed in the outstanding documentary "Unknown Chaplin", describing many scenes from this project. The most revelatory part of this story is the depiction of the relationship between Chaplin and Pickford. They apparently had quite a rivalry going and this surprised me because they would eventually form United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith.
Each of these characters interacts with other people and these other people become characters as well. Each of these characters then becomes the centerpiece of another segment. So we read through an interesting description of the Kaiser attending a Wild West Show performed in a stadium in Germany on the even of the War. The Kaiser wants to watch the show, and help his large family enjoy the show, but he keeps getting telegrams from people about the impending war. This scene is connected peripherally to the main story, but it isn't connected to the main story enough. This may seem odd to say, but this bit of narrative doesn't play an impact on the fates of the three main characters.
Later, we read an interesting description of General Pershing arriving in Russia to lead the ragtag forces there. But these ultimately don't connect either.
There are many, many characters that make an appearance but they don't connect to the theme of the story.
Worse, it is difficult to tell what the theme of the story is. Is Gold trying to say something about the outcome of the war, everything is "sunny"-er on this "side" of the street? Is everything going to change and be better because of the impact of the war? And what exactly does the formation of United Artists have to do with everything else? This closes the Chaplin story but as many know, Chaplin was still under contract with his other studio and it would be a long time before he could make a film for the studio he helped found.
"Sunnyside" is an interesting read and rich with detail and character, but this embarrassment of riches helps to muddle the story.