I remember loving Glen David Gold's first novel, Carter Beats the Devil, and since that came out in 2001 it's been a long wait for a follow-up. Fortunately Sunnyside lives up to the first book, and is another long, meandering historical novel that mixes up real events (most of the main characters actually existed) with fiction. This time Gold focuses on Hollywood during the First World War, and the figure linking everything together is Charlie Chaplin. The book opens with an eerie, fantasy-like opening chapter in which throughout America visions of Chaplin are seen on the same day, and it's all go from there. Knowing that truth is stranger than fiction, I wondered if that would turn out not to be one of Gold's inventions, and he does indeed claim in an afterword that there was a genuine case of Chaplin-related mass hysteria in 1916.
In Hollywood we follow Chaplin as he makes the film the book's named after, one of his rare flops, and as he embarks on his ill-fated first marriage. He and other early Hollywood superstars (Chaplin's curly-haired nemesis Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr) also get to experience the birth of celebrity culture, and the alien notion of strangers wanting to know every little detail about them. While they raise money for the war effort, we also follow a couple of US soldiers actually fighting in WWI, one in France and one in Russia (where the allies weren't even meant to be, since they weren't actually at war with Russia; the fear of Bolshevism is of course what made them come up with tenuous reasons to continue a presence there.) It's a sprawling novel full of fantastic characters and Gold manages to balance a number of different tones as well, from war novel to Hollywood soap opera to even a sort of dark fairytale in the Russian forests. While not all the threads come together in the end most do in surprising ways, and it's interesting to see the recurring theme of how much the US movie industry grew as a result of WWI (the European film studios were too busy being at war, so Hollywood was able to establish a monopoly that to all intents and purposes still exists a century later.) Recommended, especially if you're looking for a long book that'll keep you going for a while, but which has enough different strands and moods to it not to get monotonous.