Sunnyside, by Glen David Gold
First edition May 2010
Reviewed by Greg Doolan
I have no idea what I was thinking when I agreed to submit a book review to Waxings. I can’t even remember the last time I wrote a book review, but I imagine I was in high school at the time and trying hard not to appear stupid in front of my fellow classmates.
Fast forward 20-something odd years and, while both the classmates and I have all moved on with life, the urge not to appear stupid in front of my peers still remains.
But enough about me…
Sunnyside is Glen David Gold’s second novel. His first novel, Carter Beats The Devil, was an absolute cracker of a read. So when I spotted Sunnyside on the shelves I didn’t hesitate to grab it. And while it is a very different read from Carter, the ambitious scale Gold reaches for with Sunnyside – while at times leaving me wondering where it was all heading and how it was all going to be brought together at the end – was immensely satisfying.
So long story short: Great book. I’d definitely recommend it. Beautifully written. Gold has a style and turn of phrase that is very much his own – one moment disarmingly charming and humorous; the next, devastatingly sad and heart wrenching.
Bring on book number three please, Mr Gold.
The longer version…?
Sunnyside opens in 1916, and while America may still be young at heart, she certainly isn’t lacking in ambition. War is raging in Europe, while in California, the fledgling cinema industry is beginning to explode, turning actors into new cultural heroes and heroines and driving the emergence of a new system of economic power and financial clout – Hollywood.
The characters in Sunnyside are, largely, real (their names have not been changed to protect their identity).
Charlie Chaplin is the driving force behind the main storyline and the themes resident within Sunnyside. Other early Hollywood stars, including Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, feature at different times throughout the book. Historical figures are also used to drive the other parallel storylines that run throughout Sunnyside, hence the ‘historical fiction’ tag that has been applied to Gold as a writer.
Chaplin was an immensely popular figure in America in the early 1900s and the opening sequence of Sunnyside recounts one day in the States where – and yes, this did really happen – there was mass sightings of the famous actor/filmmaker in cities and towns throughout the country.
The phenomenon of the Hollywood star is a strong theme throughout the book. Leland Wheeler, a handsome lad who grew up working on a remote lighthouse with his mother, dreams of a career on the silver screen. While Treasury Secretary Willam McAdoo sees the economic potential of Hollywood and uses star power (Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks) as a force for raising money to pay for America’s involvement in World War I.
But as much as Hollywood and stardom are often viewed as positive agents of change, with the good also comes the bad. And I guess this is where the real heart and soul of Sunnyside lies.
‘Sunnyside’ is referenced on several occasions throughout. Most significantly, it is the name of a film that Charlie Chaplin makes – a short but bewildering and disjointed short film, made at the then height of his acclaim, but was both a popular and critical failure. But when we are first introduced to ‘Sunnyside’, it is as a reference to an idyllic, natural country hideaway – a place of beautiful, but one that also threatens to change and upset the lives of two up and coming stars of the screen. ‘Sunnyside’ is also referenced as the translated name of a ship that Leland Wheeler catches home to the US from France at the end of the war.
And while I find it hard to pin down in words exactly what I think ‘Sunnyside’ represents in this novel… here’s a try.
I think ‘Sunnyside’ is a metaphor for everything that was both good and bad in America at that time. But more than that, it is a metaphor for success and failure as well as change – that is, in reaching for our dreams there can sometimes be a ‘fall’ that follows the ‘rise’.
For Chaplin, ‘Sunnyside’ the film was supposed to be his attempt at capturing his cinematic genius on film. Yet the end result, as mentioned earlier, is a confused product of jumbled ideas and a critical flop – a reflection of his changing personality and emotional turmoil he experiences over the course of the novel. He is fundamentally changed, perhaps a victim of his own success and stardom, and nothing will ever be the same for him again.
For Leland – and I won’t say too much here least I give away a critical part of his storyline – Sunnyside also represents change; heartbreak yes, but also hope, acceptance and a second chance. And while not referenced obviously elsewhere, I think the metaphor of Sunnyside is reflected strongly throughout other storylines that run parallel to those of Chaplin and Leland.
For example, in another slice of history, albeit one that most people would know little about – I certainly didn’t – the third storyline that runs throughout Sunnyside tells the story of an Allied invasion of a remote part of eastern Russia during World War One.
It is a madness and a folly, but one dressed up in an expression of America’s ambition to flex its newly found muscle on the international stage – to quash Bolshevism and introduce capitalism to USSR. The characters of Hugo Black (a simple solider who dreams of a better life) and General Ironside (another historic figure) carry this story along. Hugo dreams of one day being accepted in to high society and of demonstrating his social skills and the delicate art and forms of conversation.
And yet here in frozen remote eastern Russia, in one of the more surreal yet engrossing scenes of the book, Hugo is faced with the opportunity to realise his dream – his ‘Sunnyside’. And yet even as he reaches for his dream comes the realisation of a tragedy. The illusory world he has been pursuing comes crashing down around him.
Ok… so I guess all of this might be starting to sound somewhat strange and a little confused. But luckily Glen David Gold is a much better writer than I am a book reviewer.
Sunnyside is full of brilliantly realised characters and beautifully depicted slices of American life – in a very young and rapidly growing LA and the more richly developed San Francisco – and the scenes set on the battle fields of France in Russia are in turns tragic and vivid, sad and humorous.
To shamelessly borrow a concept from another of my favourite writers – the late, great Douglas Adams – reading Sunnyside is like Zen navigation… the act of getting into a car with no real destination in mind and following the first vehicle that looks like it knows where it is going.
Adam’s point is that, while you never know where your destination is going to be, you inevitably end arriving somewhere you want or need to be.
And for me, that is what Sunnyside is like. I didn’t know where Glen David Gold was taking me, but the final destination (and my gosh, the final pages took my breath away and kept me thinking for days), not to mention all the stops along the way, was definitely well worth the ride.
With Glen David Gold you instantly recognise that you are in the hands of a master storyteller. The term ‘historical fiction’ doesn’t come close to doing this book justice.
Yes, it is an ambitious book. Yes, it didn’t instantly hook me the way Cater Beats The Devil did. But the further you get into Sunnyside the more you are seduced by the characters – both their complexities and their flaws – by Gold’s assured style, and his beautiful way with words.
But don’t believe me. Read Sunnyside for yourself.
Greg, wonderful to read you at more length, and what a fascinating book this sounds. I must add it to my already hefty ‘to read’ list (along with the permanent teetering tower of books on the floor at the bedside). At the rate I’m going, I might get to it in another 10 years. Perhaps by then it’ll be considered a classic!