In the early pages of Glen David Gold’s new novel Sunnyside, Charlie Chaplin is sighted in more than 800 places at the same time on November 12, 1916. One of these places is on “a small boat bobbing in the swells” off the Northern California coast within sight of a lighthouse whose “brilliant spotlight … swept away all color in the flood of illumination, casting its view into white or penumbral mystery.” Out there on the boat, the derby-hatted Chaplin stands “rubbing his chin, and waggling his mustache as if itched by a puzzling thought.” A rowboat crew rushes out to rescue him, but too late: “A wave crashed down upon the boat, and Charlie Chaplin was blown below the surface” to his doom.
Or was he? Throughout this novel, Chaplin is among a teeming cast of characters, both real and fictional, engaging in love and war and filmmaking around the world. It is the second novel in which author Gold casts flesh-and-blood historical figures with folks he just made up. His previous book Carter Beats the Devil was based on real-life magician Charles Carter.
“I apologize to students of truth who find themselves arguing with information contained herein,” Gold writes in the credits to Sunnyside. “… On November 12, 1916, Charlie Chaplin was indeed the subject of mass hysteria. And on September 15, 1918, Leland Duncan found two puppies on the World War I battlefield and named them after finger puppets. The surviving dog was the most successful film star of the 1920s. … I got some things wrong on purpose … and there are probably some things you know that I don’t.”
In a statement composed subsequently, Gold adds: “While I was working on Sunnyside, I realized to my embarrassment I was writing about something of importance. Try as I might to keep it light entertainment (and yes, there are train chases, dancing princesses, clever jewel robberies, crossbow executions, rescues at sea and battles with flamethrowers), it turned out that I was writing a novel of ideas.”