Thomas Mallon’s Up With the Sun book review


Hollywood history is filled with has-beens and never-weres, so you’re forgiven if you don’t remember Dick Kallman, a small-time Broadway player turned television actor whose career reached its fleeting apogee when he starred in a 1965 sitcom called “Hank.” After that show’s cancellation the following year, Kallman didn’t make another headline until 1980, when — having retired from show business and refashioned himself into a successful antiques dealer — he and his partner were brutally murdered in their Manhattan apartment in a robbery gone wrong.

That this lurid episode chalks off the center of Thomas Mallon’s engrossing new novel, “Up With the Sun,” may seem peculiar at first, given the deftness with which Mallon has woven minor characters into the grand fabric of history dating back to 1994’s “Henry and Clara.” That novel, which set a tale of star-crossed lovers against the backdrop of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, was followed by others in which Mallon addressed the long shadow of the 1948 election (1997’s “Dewey Defeats Truman”), the McCarthy hearings (2007’s “Fellow Travelers”) and George W. Bush’s chaotic second term (2019’s “Landfall”), so the tabloid-style death of a forgotten actor strikes one as rather narrow for a novelist of Mallon’s broad capabilities.

But this quibble vanishes as the book commences and we are gulled, immediately, by its keen portrait of New York in 1980, its effortless evocation of period and its nimble description of an encounter between Dick and a pianist named Matt Liannetta on the eve of the actor’s murder.

Matt, our narrator, doesn’t seem to like Dick much — no one does, it turns out — but they’ve known each other since the early 1950s, when Dick was an understudy in a musical called “Seventeen” and Matt was a pianist in the show’s orchestra. Tonight, Matt’s working in the pit of an ill-fated musical adaptation of “Harold and Maude,” and Dick is squiring the actress Dolores Gray, one of many renowned figures who make persuasive appearances throughout the novel.

When Dick introduces Dolores as his business partner, Matt briefly misunderstands (“For a second I thought he meant partners in some awful Judy-Garland-and-queer-husband-number-four kind of way”) before he accepts an invitation to stop by Dick’s townhouse for dinner after the show. When he does so — he hears, but does not see, the men who will eventually be apprehended for Dick’s murder — he becomes one of the last people to see Dick alive, placing him at the center of the police investigation that follows.

Sign up for the Book World newsletter

The novel tacks between sections set in Matt’s cusp-of-the-Reagan-era present and ones (told in third-person) following Kallman’s career from his 1951 Broadway debut until his death.

When I say no one likes Dick much, I mean no one: not Dyan Cannon, who shares the stage with Dick in a production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” in 1964; not Lucie Arnaz, who gets to know Dick while he is studying in her mother Lucille Ball’s acting workshop in 1959; and most catastrophically not Kenneth Nelson, the lead of “Seventeen” for whom Dick will carry a torch the rest of his life after his clumsy romantic overtures are rebuffed.

Dick’s ambition, his graspingness, his unpleasantly ingratiating manner and his complete lack of scruple as he claws his way through his endlessly thwarted career (there’s more than a touch of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s scheming hack screenwriter Pat Hobby to poor Dick) rub everybody the wrong way. As Matt puts it during a rare listless moment for the driven actor, “the usual brassiness could still be detected, but it felt as if somebody had stuck a mute into half of his seventy-six trombones.”

10 January books to read now

Still, what emerges as the book unfolds is a pensive, often gorgeous depiction of the contrast — or really, the continuum — between gay life in Manhattan before Stonewall and life on the cusp of the AIDS epidemic, a contrast that grows sharper, and infinitely sadder, as the book proceeds.

If the mystery that surrounds Dick’s murder is a modest intrigue, and if its MacGuffin — a small diamond pin Dick tries to present to Kenneth Nelson as he declares his love, which crops up at key moments throughout the novel — carries a slight whiff of contrivance, it’s nothing compared to the vast, sweeping pattern that comes into view in the book’s final quarter, when its grand design, and Mallon’s true historical subject, reveals itself.

“All my life I’ve loved the past as a place that can keep you safe from the present,” Matt reflects at one point, “. . . a place that your imagination can make as pretty as the two-dimensional flats of the Seventeen sets.” But, of course, the past is no such thing, and “Up With the Sun’s” great triumph is to render its world in not two dimensions but three, to make the lives of a pair of peripheral players not merely operatic but genuinely, shatteringly tragic.

Matthew Specktor is the author of “American Dream Machine,” “That Summertime Sound” and “Always Crashing in the Same Car.”

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program,
an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking
to and affiliated sites.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *