Review: Up with the Sun

Novelist Thomas Mallon has mastered the art of fictionalizing the lives of historical figures: Richard Nixon in Watergate, Ronald Reagan in Finale and so on. Dick Kallman--an American actor turned antiques dealer who was murdered in 1980--may not have been a prominent historical figure, but in Up with the Sun, Mallon leans on the not-quite star's biography to tell a story every bit as revealing about American ambition as the author's previous efforts centered on political giants.

The novel's even-numbered chapters unspool like a mystery. They're narrated by Matt Liannetto, a native New Yorker who makes his living as a pianist for musicals; he met Dick in 1951, when they were working on the same show. As it happens, Matt was at a dinner party at Dick's Manhattan duplex the night before Dick and his live-in boyfriend were fatally shot in what seems to have been a robbery gone wrong. Suspects are nabbed--sketchy men that Dick welcomed into his home as the evening was wrapping up--and Matt testifies at the trial, where he can't help but notice that his cheap-looking tiepin, which Dick foisted on him at the tail end of the party, catches the interest of the defendants.

In Old Hollywood parlance, Up with the Sun has a cast of thousands. There are delectable walk-ons as well as fully dramatized scenes featuring both famous faces (Natalie Wood, Robert Osborne) and stars of lower wattage. In a recurring role is actress Carole Cook, a real-life contemporary of Dick, who may be speaking for the reader when she wants to know why Matt seems to be obsessed with a man who is, as she put it, "not terribly likable as murder victims go."

Dick's unlikability is on hilariously preening display in Up with the Sun's odd-numbered chapters; an omniscient narrator remarks that with Dick, "ambition stuck out like a cowlick or a horn, fatal to an audience's complete belief in almost any character he was playing." These chapters trace Dick's life as a well-born striver whose many attempts to set Hollywood afire, most promisingly with the doomed sitcom Hank (1965-66), ended in crushing disappointment refashioned into rage. In one scene, Dick accidentally-on-purpose smashes costar Dyan Cannon's finger for upstaging him during a performance. The wonder of Mallon's characterization is that, for all of Dick's weaselly ways, he remains sympathetic--except when he crosses Lucille Ball. Then he's pushing it. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

Shelf Talker: Part mystery and part homage to showbiz also-rans, this sensational (in both senses) novel imagines the aftermath of real-life actor Dick Kallman's 1980 murder and the three decades that precede it.

Powered by: Xtenit