UP WITH THE SUN, by Thomas Mallon
Alfred Hitchcock liked to talk about the MacGuffin, a plot device of great interest to the characters onscreen that keeps the story moving along, yet turns out to be of little consequence. “In crook stories it is almost always the necklace,” he said, “and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” (Famous MacGuffins: Rosebud, from “Citizen Kane”; the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction”; the Maltese Falcon.)
In Thomas Mallon’s nostalgic new showbiz novel “Up With the Sun,” the MacGuffin is a fraternity pin: a prop from a real, if forgotten, 1951 Broadway musical called “Seventeen,” worn by an actor who was a success in it (and not much else): Dick Kallman. Kallman presses a fine-jewelry version on his cast crush, the male lead, who refuses the gift. The pin will also pop up as a tie clip worn in friendship; a token of love on a lapel; a tool of sadomasochistic sex; and — most Hitchcockishly — an object of value sought by murderous thieves.
Mallon specializes in animating imagined versions of historical figures, and ambitiously so; he recently wrapped up a Washington trilogy about three different Republican presidencies. Unlike Nixon or Reagan or George W. Bush, Kallman clears the bar of “historical” only because the internet, as they used to say of elephants, never forgets.
In 1975, his acting career on the rocks, Kallman was quoted in The New York Times’s fashion column advising women to wear terry-cloth dresses designed by a business partner. The next time he was mentioned, five years later on the front page of the paper’s Metropolitan report at age 46, was not because he’d switched to dealing art and antiques. It was because he and a “business assistant” 20 years his junior had been killed in cold blood while in various states of undress in a luxury apartment off Central Park.
Mallon swipes the story of Kallman’s short life and shocking end and runs with it like Cary Grant under the crop duster in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” (where the MacGuffin was the government microfilm hidden in a Tarascan warrior statue). Grant doesn’t make a physical cameo in “Up With the Sun” — even in death, he’s maybe too major for this, a book that’s about making one’s peace with minorness.
But many other celebrities of all gradations do, including Grant’s ex-wife Dyan Cannon, her ring finger smashed into a piece of scenery after Kallman felt she was upstaging him on the tour of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” “You sick bastard,” she hisses at him when he’s seat-filling at the Golden Globes years later.
The recreated Cannon is onto something: In Mallon’s well-researched imagining, Kallman is, if not a sociopath, a doomed cipher on whom “ambition stuck out like a cowlick or a horn, fatal to an audience’s complete belief in almost any character he was playing.” He’s good-looking, like “a less perfect Tony Curtis,” but has a belligerent, possibly misogynistic streak that puts off casting directors and colleagues.
In a short-lived TV show, “Hank,” he plays an orphan sneaking college classes (the novel’s title is taken from a lyric in Johnny Mercer’s theme song). It’s canceled after he becomes what his agent calls “the first person in history to be the subject of a takedown profile in TV Guide.”
“Did he have a soul?” wonders Lucie Arnaz, Lucy and Desi’s daughter, in whose workshop Kallman unfruitfully participated. One pit musician imagines the actor beating the female lead of “Seventeen” to death with her parasol.
His foil is that production’s (so far as I can tell wholly fictional) pianist Matt Liannetto, whose story Mallon counterposes to Kallman’s in alternating chapters rendered in sans-serif typeface. A divorced father who’s slowly emerging from the closet, Liannetto is also, in his way, doomed — a cough, diminished appetite and night sweats hint why — but morally secure, a walking indictment of fame. “I’d been glad to be quite good at the little thing I did,” he thinks, comparing himself to Salieri in “Amadeus,” “rather than mediocre at something bigger that I tried to do.”
As a drive down the highway of old-style entertainment (theater, movies, books, music, TV) — with gossip columns on the shoulder — “Up With the Sun” is an unqualified success. It’s replete with amusing walk-ons, most notably the underused actress Dolores Gray, Kallman’s partner in a décor concern called Possessions of Prominence; with knowing, affectionate references (Hal Hastings! “They’re Playing Our Song”! Manhattan Plaza!); and with sidelong observations of cultural change.
Kallman, for example, hates “A Chorus Line,” disgusted by the “backstage sweat-stink and poor-me agonizing put out in front of the audience. No more hitting your mark with a big grin and singing, full-out, a joyful lyric.” Liannetto, more deeply as is his wont, mourns the “eternal orbits” of an analog watch. We time-travel to Judy Garland’s 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall and Billy Rose’s funeral. Who could ask for anything more?
A coherent crime story, maybe. The man convicted IRL of Kallman’s killing, Charles Lonnie Grosso — whatever happened to him, I found myself wondering, tilting inexorably back toward fact. The perpetrators here are given other names, and so many stock characters tromp through in the investigation and courtroom scenes — a Columbo-like detective, a “no-nonsense” judge— it’s hard to understand the particulars or why the main character met his untimely end, other than getting mixed up with a bad drug crowd. The murder was lurid; the motive seems mundane and not fully explained, and Liannetto’s relationship with a police assistant a little too neat.
What he and the antihero Kallman have in common is that they’re both “throwbacks,” he soliloquizes. “All my life I’ve loved the past as a place that can keep you safe from the present, an inert world, sleeping and finished, that can’t push you around.”
“Up With the Sun” raises the drapes on a weird corner of this past, rousing and rummaging through. We’re left rubbing our eyes.
UP WITH THE SUN | By Thomas Mallon | Illustrated | 353 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $28