If this book had a sound it would be the rhythmic hushing of the sea, soporific and salty sweet, a sound of longing reflection.
‘He’ is the story of one of Hollywood’s greats from its golden era, Stan Laurel. There is an impressive attention to detail of the era, from the dying vaudeville theatre of the late 1800s to the growth of silent pictures, the revolution of the talkies, prohibition, and two world wars. This detail is never a distraction, however, it is merely the setting for the drama. Charlie Chaplin provides a contrasting thread to Stan’s life-arc. Chaplin is always there, the greatest star among them all, always seeming to outshine, always distant, always the genius by which others, including Stan measure themselves.
Connolly’s research is impressive to the extent that the narrative feels utterly authentic. It can feel as if he climbed inside the mind of a complex man, played all his contradictions and flaws in the same way the man himself would play them, forever trapped in one’s present self, never with the benefit of hindsight or an epiphany of self.
There is an intensity to Connolly’s prose more fitting to a short story. It is rhythmical, short and punchy, but, despite the length of the book, never boring. On the contrary, like the sound of the sea, it never gets tired. Its rhythms carry the reader through the book on a tide of reflection with the protagonist. And as the waves break in the present outside Stan’s retirement at the Oceania Apartments, so too are we pulled back by the undertow of reflection to younger Stan’s life, with all its triumphs and regrets.
There is something very apposite if not palatable about ‘He’. The reader can feel a great deal of sympathy for Stan and for some of his contemporaries, maybe not Chaplin as he is portrayed here, but certainly Oliver Hardy. However, Stan and Oliver are flawed men. There is a great deal of philandering, so much so that a mea culpa feels like a threadbare excuse. It is perhaps unfair to impose the values of the day on the actions of people in the past. Connolly notes in the post-script that Stan was a product of his time, influenced by the end of the Victorian ear, with all its repressions.
I finished reading the novel as the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and felt an unease at having sympathy for the protagonist whilst not condoning his actions. Lack of consent was not the issue for Stan Laurel or Oliver Hardy. They created great works. They delighted many and brought joy to their lives. But Stan made more than just mistakes. Perhaps, this is the strength of the novel, the thing that moves it beyond mere narrative and into the realms of art. It does not tell, it shows us and as such we are inculcated in the creation of its meaning. Judging a man judging himself, weighing up the value of a life, as if such a thing is possible, placing needs good and bad against each other, to see if his heart weighs that of a feather.
My tuppence worth is that this is more than a very good book. I feel it is good enough to be on the major literary prize lists. It is a book that makes the reader reflect, like an old man listening to the waves crashing on the shore outside his apartment at the end of his life.
John Connolly was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1968 and has, at various points in his life, worked as a journalist, a barman, a local government official, a waiter and a dogsbody at Harrods department store in London. He studied English in Trinity College, Dublin and journalism at Dublin City University, subsequently spending five years working as a freelance journalist for The Irish Times newspaper, to which he continues to contribute. John Connolly is based in Dublin but divides his time between his native city and the United States, where the Charlie Parker mysteries are set.
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Review by Daniel Soule
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