Sunnyside: A Novel

Glen David Gold follows his bestselling Carter Beats the Devil with another historical novel, this one starring Charlie Chaplin

Book Review

Sunnyside: A Novel

by Glen David Gold
Knopf, 576 pp., $26.95

The problem with historical fiction is the easy denigration from playfully intelligent writing to pointless prose trickery. Authors should be required to justify their use of the historical figures, ensuring that LBJ doesn't collide with Forrest Gump any more than necessary. The effect on the reader of such forced insertions goes from "oh, cool" to "why, oh why" in no time.

Glen David Gold follows his bestselling Carter Beats the Devil with a novel that retains the historical context but ups the stakes by putting an even bigger historical figure at the fore: Charlie Chaplin. Instead of using the Little Tramp as a cute crutch to push his ideas about the rise of war propaganda and the rise of celebrity, Gold creates a uniquely human character. The novel follows a cast of characters (all listed at the beginning as opening credits), their experiences with World War I and Hollywood, and the effects of both on love and one's perception of the world.

The opening passages describe the mass hysteria of Nov. 12, 1916, when Chaplin was spotted all across the country. From there, Chaplin tries to live up to the hype one pratfall at a time without falling into the widening jaws of the major-studio conglomerate. And as career pressures mount, so do his personal responsibilities. Stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, along with Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo, travel in orbits of annoyance, obsession, and confidence around Chaplin but reinvent themselves into a powerful force in the rapidly evolving world of movies.

Meanwhile in Europe, fame is earned in courage and/or death for the novel's other leads. War obliterates the nearly realized dreams of a struggling Hollywood actor turned reluctant soldier, Leland Duncan, while another soldier, Hugo Black, finds himself on the blurry front lines of the concurrent war in Russia. Both men find that the idea of the "war effort" seen in newsreels bears little resemblance to reality.

Sunnyside's correlations to today's cultural issues are never forced but resonate soundly nonetheless. The unchecked and feverishly encouraged nationalism of early 20th century America is startling, and yet the chapters focused on the cult of celebrity would be laughably tame if not for Gold's gentle foreshadowing and picture-perfect descriptions of young Hollywood's id.

The closing credits are a gift to those of us who may not be versed in Chaplin's biography or World War I's finer points, with Gold categorizing the major plot points into historical or fiction, a gesture that heads off a trip to Wikipedia for a fact-checking session.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Charlie Chaplin
And I Would Watch 100 Films
And I Would Watch 100 Films
And I would watch 100 more

Monica Riese, Dec. 27, 2013

DVD Watch
Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times
Modern, indeed

Marc Savlov, Dec. 31, 2010

More Book Reviews
<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

Hunting the Golden State Killer in <i>I'll Be Gone in the Dark</i>
Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death

Jonelle Seitz, July 20, 2018

More by James Renovitch
Dave Chappelle to Do Three Shows at Stubb's
Dave Chappelle to Do Three Shows at Stubb's
Tickets are on sale now and will go fast!

Nov. 13, 2020

So You Want to Vote
So You Want to Vote
A flowchart to help guide you through mail-in ballots, voter registration

Sept. 4, 2020


Sunnyside: A Novel, Charlie Chaplin, Leland Duncan, Glen David Gold

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle