Laurel is left behind in a small, unassuming flat in the Oceana Apartments in Santa Monica, Calif.near the end of life.
Oliver (Babe) Hardy is dead; their last film together was years and years before. A few fans call in, and he sends a few letters out. Plagued by poor health, he will die in 1965 at age 74.
The “he” remains just that throughout this long and engaging novel. Connolly, most famous for the Charlie Parker mystery novels, keeps Laurel’s name out of the equation throughout the book. He exists as a pronoun, though the novel is chock full of name-checks of many of the famous men and women of Hollywood’s silent era. (Even Winnipeg is mentioned as an early stop on the vaudeville circuit).
This unique device rings a Joycean tone, and the novel has lovely poetical flourishes. The performer Zera Sermon, we are told, “has more names than a war memorial.” And we are told of Hardy: “Babe takes whatever role is offered: fat cop, fat grocer, fat woman, fat baby, fat lover.”
The withholding of Laurel’s name creates an interesting distancing. More than once, we are reminded these famous figures were chimerical, and did not really exist outside of the magic shadows — motion pictures spun them into being.
This notion is captured in a lovely passage where “he” reflects on the impact the death of a half brother had on his partner Hardy:
“Sometimes he imagines himself peeling away Babe’s integuments, excavating the seams, so that Babe becomes thinner and thinner, smaller and smaller, until at last all that remains is the shining core of the man, the radiance within. But Babe is immune from such exploration, and when disease finally pares away the layers of Babe, all that is left is death.”
There is much of this peeling back and peeking into the interiors of these famous comics. In particular, Charlie Chaplin, who Laurel knew only briefly, is a constant in the book. There’s much lamenting over Chaplin’s well-documented reprobate behaviour toward very young women. Whether the real Laurel was as concerned throughout his life with this repulsive side of Chaplin, as he is in the novel, is not a matter of public record.
But these plaints are more scolds for a biographer. Whether or not He is a realistic portrait of the inner thoughts of the real Laurel as a young and aging man is not relevant to enjoyment. The novel, copiously researched, captures Hollywood’s Golden Age in flickering moments and flashing epiphanies that can be returned to, such is their appeal. For fans of the era and the beloved comedy team, this is a moving and thrilling read.
This unique novel sits besides Jerry Stahl’s equally odd novel about silent film star Roscoe Arbuckle, I, Fatty, as a valentine to a corrupt, innocent, tragic, thrilling and irretrievable time in the development of American cinema. It is highly recommended.
Lara Rae is a comedian and silent film buff. Her grandfather claimed to have attended public school with Stan Laurel in Glasgow.