The structure of Glen David Gold’s second novel mimics the old-time movie-theatre experience, with America’s steadily increasing involvement in World War I performing as the newsreel that eventually supplants the feature in audience interest. As a work of ceaseless cleverness, national in scope but whose heart dwells in Hollywood, Sunnyside towers over most historical fiction running on the loss and emptiness of three young men forced to evaluate their commitment to God and country on the eve of war.
Sunnyside opens with a fantastic and apocryphal scene in which a moment of mass Charlie Chaplin recognition sweeps the nation in November 1916, while the man supposedly being spotted by hundreds at once sits on the roof of his club thinking about his mother. With the U.S. facing the prospect of entering the Great War overseas, Leland Wheeler, a lighthouse keeper’s son with acting dreams, contemplates going on the lam after he finds out his mother has overridden his draft deferment. Detroit dandy Hugo Black, fired from yet another job bought by his engineer father, is packed off for a re-education in humanity on a quixotic Russian campaign. And Chaplin, despite being given the label of un-enlisted “slacker” by the Los Angeles papers, struggles to find meaning in his career while joining a propaganda tour and wooing a few young starlets.
Like the contagious image of the Tramp in the national mind, Gold seems to be everywhere at once, squeezing thrills out of his ever-multiplying storylines even as his book more than occasionally calls out for an index to keep its personalities straight. The author clearly enjoys toying with the idea of performance, from Leland’s performing-cowboy father to the aspirations of a Jewish Girl Scout turned amateur thief, but not enough to undercut the emotional investment even the supernumeraries demand. Animating Chaplin alone, so easily recognizable and little known, would have been captivating enough; Gold dares not only to recreate his inner circle, including the budding, tabloid-teasing romance between Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, but also to hold them alongside mortal men without doing either a disservice. As the war draws each character into unfamiliar territory, the deft wordplay that surrounds them eases up just enough to show the humanizing touch behind—the clear-headed assessment of personality buried in this mighty panorama.