"If it's 100 years from now and there are still people, bless you all. I hope you have polar bears."
So concludes the acknowledgements section of Glen David Gold's Sunnyside, a novel so warmhearted and enveloping that you will read the acknowledgements, every last one of them, because you won't want the book to end. And because Gold is a meticulous and generous writer who doesn't waste a word of his 559-page novel, you'll find, in Sunnyside's final lines, that bittersweet salute to future readers, wishing for them a world in which polar ice floes can still support a 1,000-pound bear.
In 2001, Gold published Carter Beats the Devil, a virtuosic debut about a young magician in the 1920s. In the scrupulously researched novel, Gold trod the edges of what-could-have-been, populating his fiction with real characters, real circumstances, even real magic tricks, as the era of the celebrity magician peaked and faded with the introduction of movies and television.
With Sunnyside, Gold returns to his unique brand of historical fiction, extracting lively, relevant metaphor from a popular culture peopled with vividly compelling figures. The hero of Sunnyside is none other than a youthful Charlie Chaplin, already a star, though in 1917 he's yet to make a film "as good as he is." He's also, increasingly, criticized as a "slacker"—an insult levied against un-enlisted men of fighting age, as WWI propaganda efforts strategically guilt-tripped the entire country into supporting the war. Gold draws Chaplin as a charming, restlessly insecure genius, a perfectionist who skitters from idea to idea, trusting an intuition that always pans out. He's also imminently likeable, self-aware and skeptical of his own fame. One night before a Hollywood party, he practices introducing himself to the other partygoers: "'Hullo, I'm Charles Chaplin,' he said, extending his arm toward the ceiling. It sounded pretentious. 'Hello, everyone. I'm Charlie.' Was it more pretentious to leave the 'Chaplin' off? It was a Trojan horse of informality, because it pretended he was Charlie No-One-Special, when it actually relied on those to whom he was being introduced knowing the last name themselves."
Charlie is learning how to be a star, as the very concept of stardom is evolving alongside his work and that of friends and rivals like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The city, too, is feeling its way; in chapter after chapter, Gold hacks Hollywood out of the orchards and bean fields of Southern California, studios and hotels emerging from the desert. "It was obvious, upon seeing the beaches and hills and palms," Gold writes of Hollywood, "that your current self was just a stand-in for someone not yet arrived. If only you could live in such a beautiful place, the rest would change. People at their weakest, most trusting, and childlike moments believed there was out there for them somewhere a Sunnyside. Which meant the place was eventually 100 two-bedroom bungalows. The mystery not yet solved was how to love a place when your mere presence destroyed it."
Charlie is an actor who worries about being a soldier. Parallel to his story runs that of Leland Wheeler, a soldier who wants to be an actor; and Hugo Black, a soldier stationed in Russia—which is not, as it turns out, even a stage. Their stories intertwine and overlap, as Gold constructs an elaborate and ambitious history of nothing less than the evolution of modern consciousness. Sunnyside is the best kind of summer reading, a beautifully lavish, intelligent novel that begs to be read slowly and closely, from first line to last.