he - John Connolly
he - John Connolly *****
Although 'he' is never actually named, there's no question that the third-person pronoun that is the subject of John Connolly's surprising new novel is based on the life of the partner of one Oliver Norvell 'Babe' Hardy, the two of them forming the greatest comedy partnership in movie history. Over the course of the book 'he's' reminiscences reflect on the likes of Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Leo McCarey, Hal Roach, Mack Sennet and other names now mostly forgotten from this period like Larry Semon and Broncho Billy Anderson, who were nonetheless influential names in the Golden Age of Hollywood Comedy.
It was also the Golden Age of Hollywood vice and scandal, and Connolly's novel quickly demolishes any remaining romanticised view you might have had of the movie stars of the silent era, the comedy short and the expansion of the industry into feature films. It might also cause you to view the beloved and untouchable duo of Laurel and Hardy in a new light, but while Connolly's stark and unflinching gaze exposes all the men's flaws with regards to women, money, women, gambling and women (and golf) and certainly humanises them, 'he' somehow manages to make them only more sympathetic with regards to their failings, not unlike the loveable stupidity of their comic characters.
A large part of how Connolly achieves this - and it really is quite an achievement - is in the writing style. As the title indicates, the novel is reticent about naming the main character that it is based on, and the reason for that is because it's obviously a wholly fictionalised and highly creative imagining on how 'he', in his final years, might have reflected and reminisced on all the upheavals in his life and movie career. All ages come to an end, like silent cinema and the comedy two-reeler, and in 'he' there is an overwhelming sense of things coming to an end. If it's true that all political careers end in failure, all glamorous movie careers would seem to end in bitterness and regret.
As he reflects on his life in his final days at Ocean Apartments, there is a certain amount of bitterness about how 'he' was treated by the movie industry, and quite a few regrets about how he treated the four wives and many women in his life, but there is one feeling that pushes any thoughts of bitterness and regret into the background and that's grief. Babe is dead, and 'he' has been unable to continue without him. It's this sense of the loss of a close friend, a partner, another half, that colours and casts a shadow over everything else. It's there even as he runs through old slapstick routines and comic one-liner exchanges in his mind.
It takes a while for the spell that Connolly creates to weave its way through the book. Initially, the alusive reflective musing on industry gossip and scandal, the bitching and backstabbling and the endless lists of who is fucking who in Hollywood is rather off-putting. Such matters of Hollywood Babylon are well-documented elsewhere, although in terms of the scale of the goings on (and the details imagined), it's certainly shocking and eye-opening. Chaplin inevitably comes under scrutiny, but along with the unpleasant side of his character revealed there is also unreserved recognition and admiration for him being the greatest of them all, albeit with an unspoken and unacknowledged reproach somewhere in there.
This kind of beautiful ambiguity is skillfully employed by Connolly throughout, that even as the behaviour of the movie stars and the movie industry is depicted in excoriating detail, there remains a measure of admiration and affection for their humanity and their achievements. That's very much applied to 'he' and encapsulated in his own life as he reflects on his successes and on his failures, trying to understand how a life can be filled with extraordinary talent, popularity, fame and love, and yet end in failure, divorce, loss and bereavement. All things come to an end, but some legends live on.
he by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 24th August 2017