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Originally published Friday, May 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Sunnyside:" a fictional homage to Charlie Chaplin

Glen David Gold's novel "Sunnyside" mixes showbiz fact with fiction, taking inspiration from the life and times of Charlie Chaplin. Gold reads May 19 and May 20 in the Seattle area.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Glen David Gold

The author of "Sunnyside" will read from his book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St. in Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com). He will read at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

Glen David Gold's fascinating 2001 novel, "Carter Beats the Devil," mixed showbiz fact with fiction in a manner that beguiled both Houdini fans and experts on pre-Depression political history.

His latest, sometimes unwieldy venture into similar territory, "Sunnyside," (Knopf, 555 pp., $26.95) fictionalizes the adventures of Charlie Chaplin during World War I, when Chaplin was perfecting his Little Fellow character for what turned out to be a massive worldwide audience.

Chaplin's World War I comedy, "Shoulder Arms," opened during the flu epidemic that would otherwise have killed enthusiasm for gathering in public places (some audiences were required to wear masks to theaters). But it was a hit, part of his attempt to live up to his reputation and create a movie "as good as he was."

Gold's narrative involves Chaplin's ambivalence toward war (he reluctantly sold bonds) during the making of "Shoulder Arms," as well as the parallel battlefield adventures of two young men: Hugo Black, a Michigan boy who gets caught up in an American-British attempt to wipe out the Bolsheviks, and Leland Wheeler, a Wild West star's son who turns up in France.

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"). Gold also declares that "No animals were harmed in the making of this book."

On several occasions, the rather colorless Black is overshadowed by the charisma and anti-communist sermonizing of a larger-than-life British general, Edmund Ironside: "In Bolshevism, surpluses are confiscated from the industrious and redistributed to the lazy or ineffectual," he explains. "I am sorry that it promises otherwise." Shortly after praising 13 mutineers for accepting responsibility for their actions, he orders their execution.

Parts of "Sunnyside" turn into an anti-war rant, as the reasons for World War I are repeatedly called into question. Black realizes that America "had sent him to a ridiculous war it had already forgotten," while Ironside, who notes how history repeats itself (but never in quite the same way), concludes that "sometimes men simply want to go to war."

If Gold often seems to be talking about the current unpleasantness in Iraq, that connection is underlined in an epilogue in which Gold notes that the real Ironside helped partition the Middle East following the war.

Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, Chaplin was working on another film, "Sunnyside" — and trying to salvage his artistic freedom by forming United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. He was also undermining his first marriage by becoming obsessed with screenwriter Frances Marion, whose mean tongue and nimble mind kept him entertained.

This sprawling, sporadically rewarding book ends with Chaplin on the brink of his greatest early success (1921's "The Kid"), and begins with a mass hallucination on the part of hundreds of Americans, who claimed to have seen Chaplin at the same time in November 1916.

The author claims this is true. Of course, he also claims that "I got some things wrong on purpose."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.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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