Alfred A. Knopf: 576 pp., $26.95
Glen David Gold's massive new novel begins with a trick, a coup, the literary equivalent of sleight of hand. For a writer whose first book, "Carter Beats the Devil" (2001), concerned the grand story of a 1920s magician, this should come as no surprise. Gold re-creates time periods as E.L. Doctorow did in "Ragtime," mingling fact and fiction so that the one blends into the other seamlessly. He's a spellbinder.
"Sunnyside" opens on Nov. 12, 1916. At the northernmost limit of the California coastline, in a lighthouse off Crescent City, the "unfairly handsome" young Leland Wheeler tells his mother, the lighthouse keeper, that there's a problem. Somebody, and not just anybody, is in trouble at sea, close to the lighthouse, drifting toward rocks and disaster, with the ocean dumping water into his boat.
Even without visual aid, Emily can see the small craft, merely an open skiff, bobbing in the early morning swells. Then she turns to the telescope: "Emily applied her eye to the eyepiece, blinked, and ran her fingers along the reeded focus knob, making a blur, and then, in a perfectly circular iris, she saw, with a clarity that made her gasp, Charlie Chaplin."
Meanwhile, in dusty East Texas, another young man, Hugo Black, the son of a wealthy Detroit family and a sometime-railroad engineer, rides in the caboose of a train steaming into a town where a brass band and a big crowd await. "We invite you, Charlie Chaplin," whispers the town's mayor, rehearsing the expected moment, "to take light refreshment and a morning drink with us."
Elsewhere, at that same moment, all over America, pageboys are calling out the name of history's first worldwide celebrity: "Mr. Chaplin. Paging Charlie Chaplin."
"According to the Boston Globe, Chaplin was sought that morning in over eight hundred hotels," Gold writes, getting ready to introduce us to the object of this fever, who, on that morning, isn't drowning in the Pacific, isn't in East Texas, isn't about to answer the summons in any of those hotels but is on the roof of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, "slouched in his orange bathrobe, hair a nest of black, slept-on curls," surrounded by cats and pigeons, at peace and "thinking about love."
The staging of this gorgeous, thrilling opening is reminiscent, in some ways, of the hot-air balloon accident with which Ian McEwan begins "Enduring Love." The writer, determined to get the story wheel spinning full tilt, creates intense excitement and sets himself a problem: How to follow such narrative panache without falling flat?
The good news is that "Sunnyside" always intrigues and often soars, unfurling three major story lines, and a tumult of minor ones, from this opening hook. Gold packs off Leland Wheeler (by then called Leland Duncan, having discovered the identity of his father) to World War I in France, follows Black with an expeditionary force that fights the Bolsheviks in the newly created USSR and views Chaplin's life in early Hollywood at a series of turning points. Along the way a host of subsidiary characters is introduced, some based on real people (and animals), others entirely fictional: silent film stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, studio boss Adolph Zukor, a father-and-daughter con-man team, Harvard psychologist and early film critic Hugo Munsterberg, a flier named Ripley (Gold's nod toward Patricia Highsmith), British Gen. Edmund Ironside, a trio of dancing Russian princesses and the dog that will become Rin Tin Tin.
There is, indeed, a cast of thousands, and Gold's problem in writing this impeccably researched book might have been the stuff he couldn't bear to leave out. 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.
Scores of novels have tried and failed to depict movie stars and stardom or genius. Yet here Gold conjures a nuanced character who springs to life. Chaplin comes across as witty, charming, insecure. He dresses with a dandy's care, suffers depressions and wears a perfume that smells like citrus with "base notes of money." He woos women and conducts a book-length joust with Pickford, whose air of certainty and business smarts confuses and almost terrifies him. Chaplin's doubts center on his sense of being not good enough, an uncertainty that he knows he must somehow allow to filter through his art.
"He had the easy capacity for seeing kinetic actions first, then creating character and emotion to fill them up, like ladling sand into a sack. This was too easy -- everyone did it," Gold writes. "Where was the small moment, the flirtatious smile not returned, the cuckold discovering a cuff link and saying nothing, the smile of a baby that somehow chills the bones? That was the hardest way to make things."
Gold places the center of Chaplin's ache in his longing for love -- and his fear of the same -- in his relationships with women. Chaplin's mother, Hannah, was a music hall singer whose career was ruined and who went mad, leaving the young Chaplin destitute, and the whole Chaplin-arc of "Sunnyside" is aimed at the moment, dreaded and longed-for, when Hannah arrives in Los Angeles. "He could meet her eyes, but only as though they were tapping his fingers against a hot stove. They were still a deep hazel, cloudy and merry, for now," Gold writes. "It's okay if you don't love your mother," Hannah says, as "Sunnyside" speeds at last toward its conclusion with a sequence of scenes that amaze, startle and move.
Gold captures the look and feel of pre-1920s Los Angeles, when downtown was still the hub and much of what we now think of as urban sprawl was farmland or citrus groves or empty space with movie studios sprouting up. Gold writes with unobtrusive elegance and a style that is breezy and modern. His set pieces -- whether a party at Samuel Goldwyn's beach house , a Liberty Loan rally in San Francisco, a firing squad execution -- act on the reader almost like films, vivid and indelible.
Yet "Sunnyside," for all its discussion of movies, and its often cinematic rendering of story, reminds us of the big way in which prose narrative differs. Film is a ruthless medium, allowing no longueurs, requiring acceleration through the story line and a strict adherence to tone. Fiction engages its audience one-on-one and relies less on control. As readers, we forgive problems in novels that, as viewers, we simply don't in films. "Sunnyside" feels, at times, like Dickensian streaky bacon, a bit of a baggy monster. But it has, too, those wonderful Dickensian qualities, namely, the capacity to startle, to thrill, to evoke laughter and, ultimately, to bring tears to the eyes. No reader who sticks for the ride is going to forget it.
Rayner's new book, "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age," will be published next month.