The life and art of Stan Laurel, from vaudeville and silent movies to the talkies and old age, is explored in this artful novel.
It's easy to see what doesn't quite work in this retelling of Laurel's life. Connolly (A Game of Ghosts, 2017, etc.) has made his name as a crime writer, and at times the blunt, spare, deliberately repetitive prose seems like a self-conscious attempt to be literary on the part of someone concerned about being snobbishly dismissed as a genre writer. At times, Connolly reaches for lyricism and finds only sentimentality. At times he employs a too-easy psychoanalyzing that reduces characters—and which stands out in a novel that insists on the complexity of humans and their motives. But the flaws are finally no match for the affection that the author feels for his subject, for the genuine melancholy that wells up as Laurel remembers his past from the comfort of the small apartment in Santa Monica where he spent his last years and for the intelligence and decency with which Connolly handles potentially salacious material. The Stan Laurel we know from the screen, that gentle, befuddled soul, was different from the man who made bad marriages and for many years sought refuge from the pain of those marriages in booze. The book is too smart to use that gap between public persona and private life to treat Laurel's art as if it were a lie. Almost all the characters here are based on real people, and even the genuine bastards are granted the status of full human beings. Oliver Hardy, known to all as Babe, is granted considerably more, and he comes across as a mountainous angel of a man. The book's great love story is that of Laurel mourning and yearning for his late partner, still writing routines for the two of them, rehearsing them by himself. It's the best tribute to this novel that by the end of it you feel you have been given the full texture of a life.
This exploration of how art often diverges from the reality of the artist's life is not only moving, but also bracingly adult.