Thomas Mallon’s Up With the Sun Captures the Nuance of Historical Fiction
Thomas Mallonthe DC-based author from 2012 water gate and 2019 landing, understands the nuances of historical fiction. He knows that the key to this genre is to realistically recreate historical events and figures. He has succeeded in this in his previous works and achieves this in his latest novel, Up with the sunin which Mallon fictionalizes the botched robbery and murder of Dick Kalmana former Broadway and TV star.
The novel begins on February 23, 1980, the day after Kallman’s death, with a description of the crime scene: “God Almighty! I saw this ultra sharp black and white shot of Dick in one of them Louis XV Chairs… one side of his head flawless and the other side exploding.”
Steven Szladek, Kallman’s surviving lover, lies dead next to Kallman in their apartment on the Upper East Side of New York City, where they ran a fledgling antique shop. From here, Mallon’s prose echoes with nostalgia and anticipation.
The narration alternates between pianist Matt Liannetto‘s first-person narration and an omniscient third-person voice. Liannetto, who met Kallman on Broadway, was at Kallman’s apartment the night of the murder, so he’s a reliable narrator. The pianist patiently offers important information about the police investigation, explains why Kallman was not a trusted friend and introduces the reader to some acquaintances. In several tender moments, Mallon writes about Liannetto’s relationship with the police officer Devin Arroyo. In the odd-numbered chapters, beginning with the very first chapter, Mallon turns back the clock to focus on Kallman’s career and social life from 1951 onwards. Switching back and forth between past and present with every alternate chapter, Mallon creates an echo chamber that helps us enjoy Hollywood’s bygone years and puts us right in the middle of a crime thriller.
Kallmann was a Lucille Ball Protégé who appeared in several Broadway shows including 1951 Seventeenwho played the lead role Kenneth Nelson, and 1965s Half a sixpence. He acted on TV Hank Dearborn on the sitcom Strand. The author moves the plot with many examples of Kallman’s Imbroglios with friends and by weaving in Kallman’s obsession with Nelson the handsome Seventeen Actors, as well as Kallman’s reactions to Nelson’s constant rebuffs. At one point, Kallman tries to tell a an unfavorable story about Nelson Hollywood reporter Columnist, but the journalist rejected the novice move. On another occasion we read about Kallman’s breakup Dyan Cannon‘s finger during a performance because she outshined him. “[By 1971] Dick had pretty much stopped worrying as he pretty much had the answer…no one who knew him liked him,” the omniscient third-person voice tells readers. Nelson confirms Kallman’s belief in a letter to our narrator, Liannetto: “I’m sorry I can’t write more about Dick. I didn’t like him for all the obvious reasons most people did.”
Mallon’s astute knowledge of New York and Hollywood takes us to Broadway venues like the Broadhurst Theater and the Alvin Theater (now the Neil Simon Theatre) and across the country to the Beverly Hilton Ballroom for a Golden Globes ceremony and dinner in West Hollywood restaurant Dan Tana’s, where Kallman picked up a busboy. Mallon also writes about Rounds, a popular gay bar that Arroyo frequents for tips on Kallman and his lover’s murder.
Portions of the book introduce us to the three suspects and take us into the police station and courtroom where the defendants are charged with murder and robbery. Before the trial, however, the detective creates a vocal lineup for Liannetto. Consisting of three police officers and a suspect standing behind a wall separating them from Liannetto, the detective prompts each person to speak, hoping that Liannetto will be able to identify the killer’s voice. It’s an important police tactic since the pianist didn’t see the killer’s face on the night of the murders. But we be warned: it’s “something unusual” and may not work in court. However, during the trial, the defendants become obsessed with an expensive pin worn by Liannetto. That pin, which Kallman originally bought for Nelson, “was everything [the killers] were after” the night of February 22, 1980.
As Mallon’s narration moves shoulder-to-shoulder, it offers us a glimpse into two distinct eras – mid-20th-century show business and gritty 1980s New York. With Kallman, Mallon cleverly creates an unsympathetic character and brings luminaries like Ball and Co. into play Johnny Carson to further anchor us in the inner workings of show business, and creates an incident that may help us understand why Kallman failed to foster healthy relationships. For some, 1980s New York is almost synonymous with an epidemic. By the end of the book, we are introduced—through Liannetto’s own declining health—to the scourge that would soon ravage bodies and spread at breakneck speed through the queer communities of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Back in 1981, the disease was known as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, despite the reality that anyone can contract HIV) and “felt more like a hallucination than a diagnosis.” Though there are many sad incidents in the book, Mallon juxtaposes several uplifting moments to create a captivating page-turner.
Up with the sun by Thomas Mallon will be published by Knopf Publishing on February 7th. Hardcover, 352 pages.