three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-SunnysideGlen David Gold’s short stories and articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine and McSweeney’s, and his critically acclaimed debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil (2001), was a hit with fans of historical fiction. Gold, married to fellow writer Alice Sebold, lives in San Francisco.

The Story: On Sunday, November 12, 1916, celebrated silent film star Charlie Chaplin was inexplicably sighted in more than 800 locations across the United States. In Crescent City, California, handsome, young lighthouse keeper Leland Wheeler tries to save the actor from drowning, and in Beaumont, Texas, hapless junior engineer Hugo Black is caught amid rioting townsfolk, who are disappointed that the Little Tramp is not on an incoming train. During the next three years, each man will face failures and frustrations: Wheeler, an aspiring actor himself, serves in France during the First World War; Black participates in the Allies’ misguided attempt to oust the Bolsheviks; and Chaplin navigates personal and professional setbacks in a perilous quest for artistic freedom.
Knopf. 576 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0307270688

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Perhaps the most direct description of Sunnyside is that Gold takes these disparate facts and builds a 500-plus page narrative around them, one that is witty and often as funny as it is insightful. … Ultimately, Sunnyside plays out much like Chaplin’s career, initially funny but moving on to something that is deeper, that plumbs the human condition without necessarily providing definitive answers." Robin Vidimos

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The narrative, dramatizing the random and chance-like nature of newly arrived modernity, has little in the way of plot and shoots off in a bewildering number of directions, but the book keeps coming back to Chaplin and the nature and influence of film storytelling. … No reader who sticks for the ride is going to forget it." Richard Rayner

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As he did in his first novel, Carter Beats the Devil, Gold adroitly mixes fact and fiction. … The author avoids the big questions posed by art and war and genius, saving his insights for the rise of mass media and the culture of celebrity." James F. Sweeney

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Sunnyside is a rich concoction of a novel, a mélange of historical fact, biographical speculation and outright fantasy, teeming with so many characters that a reader welcomes the list of them in the front of the book. But for all that popping and crackling cleverness—or perhaps because of it—it’s also a bit ramshackle." Charles Matthews

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Gold doesn’t just know Chaplin’s life and work and the lives and works of fellow movie stars Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rin Tin Tin, et al.; he also knows everything about cameras, the psychological theories of Hugo Münsterberg, the development of the studio system, diamond cutting, lighthouses, World War I finances, machine guns and a thousand other subjects that burst from this fire hose of a novel. … As discombobulating as the book is as a whole, its parts are magnificent, and Sunnyside is flooded with funny, horrible and downright bizarre details of early 20th-century life." Ron Charles

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The three storylines don’t always flow together naturally, and Gold sometimes drifts into cuteness, presenting the novel as if it were a movie and assigning credits for the special effects, set design and cast (Wilhelm II ‘plays’ the Kaiser while Chaplin plays ‘himself’). … Although Gold keeps returning to the war, its aftermath and consequences, the book will be of greatest interest to readers with an interest in Chaplin and the silent-film era." John Hartl

Critical Summary

Starting with a bizarre, real-life occurrence of mass hysteria, Gold opens with a bang, and skillfully merges fact with fabrication in this overflowing, pulsating novel. Some critics wished he’d had a more ruthless editor, and others were annoyed by some of his too-clever whims. (For example, the novel’s layout mirrors an old-fashioned silent film, with a newsreel, a travelogue, a short comedy, and the feature presentation.) However, others quickly became caught up in the spectacle of pre-1920s Hollywood and the horrors of war. Though the men’s stories don’t always mesh convincingly, the novel’s warmth, intelligence, and humor balance out these complaints. Addressing the influence of the film industry, the power of the media, and the consequences of war, Sunnyside is a dazzling, if at times overwhelming, work of historical fiction.

Cited by the Critics

Ragtime | E. L. Doctorow (1975): Award Star National Book Critics Circle Award. Several critics compared Gold’s skill in blending fiction and history with that of bestselling novelist E. L. Doctorow, and cited this novel in particular as one of his best. As three New York City families pursue the American Dream in the early years of the 20th century, Doctorow adeptly reimagines the innocence and exuberance of the era, poised precipitously on the brink of war.