Glen David Gold, author of the best seller Carter Beats the Devil, now gives us a grand entertainment with the brilliantly realized figure of Charlie Chaplin at its center: a novel at once cinematic and intimate, heartrending and darkly comic, that captures the moment when American capitalism, a world at war, and the emerging mecca of Hollywood intersect to spawn an enduring culture of celebrity.
Sunnyside opens on a winter day in 1916 during which Charlie Chaplin is spotted in more than eight hundred places simultaneously, an extraordinary delusion that forever binds the overlapping fortunes of three men: Leland Wheeler, son of the world’s last (and worst) Wild West star, as he finds unexpected love on the battlefields of France; Hugo Black, drafted to fight under the towering General Edmund Ironside in America’s doomed expedition against the Bolsheviks; and Chaplin himself, as he faces a tightening vise of complications—studio moguls, questions about his patriotism, his unchecked heart, and, most menacing of all, his mother.
The narrative is as rich and expansive as the ground it covers, and it is cast with a dazzling roster of both real and fictional characters: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Adolph Zukor, Chaplin’s (first) child bride, a thieving Girl Scout, the secretary of the treasury, a lovesick film theorist, three Russian princesses (gracious, nervous, and nihilist), a crew of fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants moviemakers, legions of starstruck fans, and Rin Tin Tin.
By turns lighthearted and profound, Sunnyside is an altogether spellbinding novel about dreams, ambition, and the dawn of the modern age.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Glen David Gold’s first novel, Carter Beats the Devil, has been translated into fourteen languages. His short stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s, Playboy, and The New York Times Magazine. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, Alice Sebold.
From the Hardcover edition.
At its northernmost limit, the California coastline suffered a winter of brutal winds pitched against iron- clad fog, and roiling seas whose whiplash could scar a man’s cheek as quickly as a cat- o’- nine- tails. Since the Gold Rush, mariners had run aground, and those who survived the splintering impact were often pulped when the tides tore them across the terrible strata of the volcanic landscape. For protection, the State had erected ascore of lighthouses staffed with teams of three or four families who rotated duties that lasted into the day and into the night. The changing of the guard, as it were, was especially treacherous in some locations, such as Crescent City, accessible only by a tombolo that was flooded in high tide, or Point Bonita, whose wooden walkway, even after the mildest storm, tended to faint dead away from the loose soil of its mountaintop and tumble into the sea.
Until the advent of navigational radio, communication with the mainland was spotty. God help the man who broke his leg on the Farallon Islands between the weekly supply- ship visits. But the peril of the European War had meant Crosley crystal- receiver radio sets and quenched spark systems with an eight- hundred- mile range for all who lived and worked on the coastlines, and so, on Sunday, November 12, 1916, just below the Oregon border, at the St. George Reef Lighthouse, eight miles off the California coast, there began an explosion of radio, telephone, and telegraph operations unprecedented in American history.
At high tide, roughly five o’clock in the morning, it was over an hour before dawn. The sweeping eighty- thousand- candlepower light from the third- order lens cast the frothing sea from shore to horizon into the high contrast of white against black for some moments, then back into full pitch- darkness. Two strong men in caps and slickers rowed the station boat toward the crown of stone upon which the lighthouse stood. Their passenger, her corpulent form bundled beneath a treated canvas sail, her arms crossed around her morning pitcher of coffee, was the Second Assistant Keeper, Emily Wheeler. As the light rotated, there was a stroboscopic effect which illuminated her progress cutting across the sea foam that lay like frosting above the crags and crevasses of the ancient reef. Emily Wheeler, in the third generation of a family of California lighthouse keepers, was a difficult woman, but, as with all difficult women who could demand such isolated work, her desire was immediately granted. Of course, send her to a rock miles off the coastline, go with the governor’s blessings.
But, unlike other such women, she had thought to make her own uniform. She wore it under the sail and her layers of slickers and inflatable vests. It was navy wool, with simple gold braid at the throat, and there was a smart, matching cap under which she tucked the foundry- steel braid of her hair. After considerable thought about stripes—she didn’t want to seem conceited, yet she also wanted to acknowledge her duties—she had
given herself the rank of sergeant.
Her lighthouse was the world’s most expensive, nine years in the making, a cylindrical housing hewn from living granite, a 115- foot caisson tower as sturdy as a medieval fortress, its imposing skin interrupted only by the balistrariac slits of loophole windows. And at the very top, capped with iron painted a brilliant red, was its lantern room, in which rotated the Fresnel lens, as faceted as a sultana’s engagement diamond, and which, like the eye of Argus, was chambered myriad ways, as close to omniscience as technology could dare. There was no better light in America.
To be the sergeant sharing charge of such a great beast was an honor and a responsibility to which Emily Wheeler was equal, and to be a woman superior to men was a life she made no secret of enjoying. In fact, to gain their confidence, she was known to pander to their prejudices, in effect putting her own gender up for sale. (“Gentlemen,” she said on her first day, “I do not give the orders. The sea gives the orders, and we are at the mercy of her unpredictable ways.”)
She was clearheaded in a crisis, and had organized the rescue of many a wayward sailor. However, it was her habit in the boring hours to engineer small crises herself. A twitching filament on the reserve lantern was occasion for much shouting; cleaning the fog signal’s air compressor meant at least three separate fits of panic. It was thus the curse of her men to wish on every shift for an actual disaster. Since no one could live comfortably at the station for more than a week, the four keeper families passed much of their lives in cottage- style duplexes on the coast, on the dunes justabove the shoreline. Husbands and wives and children were eternally, twice a day, with the waxing and waning tides, handing off hot meals and kissing each other goodbye.
Eight miles from shore, the station boat now settled into place on the leeward side of the lighthouse, which made a wedge- shaped windscreen, a small pool of calm. The men in the boat flashed their tiny lantern, and in response there was a groan from the crane housing overhead, and a winch dropped down a cargo net, into which Sergeant Wheeler stepped. Another exchange of lights, and then the crane withdrew, bringing her aloft. It was during the long moments when she swung in the wind, and the spray of the sea managed to slap at her face and neck, that she most enjoyed her job at the very edge of the map. “I am the westernmost woman in the country”— an idea she extinguished when the cargo net placed her on granite. Trouble.
Leland, her assistant, helped her unbuckle the harness and step out of the cargo net. “We have a problem, Mom.”
Leland was always on duty at the same time she was, less a personal choice than a request of the other families. He was twenty- four years old, talk at the lighthouse had deemed him “unfairly handsome,” and he had wrecked two surreys on the dunes near the cottages while impressing girls. Further, he had a propensity for mail- ordering sheet music from San Francisco, jazz rags, which he insisted on playing on the clarinet most afternoons, and he was known to visit the picture show three consecutive days to memorize the details of photoplays rather than stay at home and help his grandmother, who had the vapors. It was hoped Sergeant Wheeler would provide discipline.
“Craft adrift. About a mile west- northwest.”
“Anyone on it?”
Leland hesitated. He was generally quick with a quip, which melted Emily’s heart too much and prevented any actual discipline from occurring. So now she looked at him not just as a sergeant, but as a worried mother. Finally, he said, “You should come see.” They passed through the portico into the engine room and took the elevator to the cramped observation chamber just below the lantern room. It shared common glass with the lightbox one story above. There were two men already present, a father and a son of the Field family, pushing each other away from their only telescope worth a damn, the Alvan Clark with a two- inch lens. While Emily removed her slicker, and polished the wet from her glasses, two more assistants came into the room, having heard excitement was brewing.
“Where’s the craft?” Emily asked.
“It’s ten o’clock, a mile out,” answered the elder Field.
“And it’s manned?”
Field looked to his son, who looked to Leland, who nodded.
“Is it the invasion?” For this had been a topic of discussion, at first hypothetically and of late a grim certainty.
“No, it’s just one man. Alone.”
Frowning, Emily pulled the phone from the wall and called to the lantern room, asking them to fix the lens so that it shone at ten o’clock, and to send up the code flags, prepare for a series of two- flag signals, and notify all surrounding vessels via radio telephony that a rescue was in progress. The engine ground down with the easing of a clock spring, and the white light went steady upon the churning seas. The fog, which most days was a woolen overcoat, this morning was but a beaded mist easily torn through, and even without the telescope, Emily could see a small boat bobbing in the swells.
“Lord! It’s just a skiff, an open skiff,” she whispered. She made fluttering gestures to push back the group around the Alvan Clark, and they exchanged glances of anticipation. This was either a real crisis or one about to be shouted into existence. 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.
She jolted a step backward, looking to the window without the aid of magnification, as if the telescope might have somehow fabricated this vision. She could see the boat, now rocking on the crests of ever- increasing waves as it came closer, and there was indeed a solitary figure aboard. He was dressed in baggy black trousers, a tight morning coat. He had a mustache. A cane. A derby.
“Is that . . .” She swallowed.
“We were thinking it looks like Charlie Chaplin,” Leland said, with the shame of a boy caught believing in fairies.
Emily gulped coffee, searching for it to kick like gin, and then she looked again through the telescope. The lighthouse provided a brilliant spotlight that swept away all color in the flood of illumination, casting its view into glowing white or penumbral mystery; there was no missing the open skiff, its single sail patched and sagging, its occupant shuffling from stem to stern, toes out, gingerly leaping over each oarlock’s thwart. He was rubbing his chin, and waggling his mustache as if itched by a puzzling thought, and in the severa...
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Book Description Random House Large Print 2009-05-05, 2009. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Lrg. 0739328530. Bookseller Inventory # Z0739328530ZN
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