He by John Connolly (pbk)

Reviewed by Annabel

When I first started reading this book, I hadn’t appreciated it was by ‘John’ Connolly of the Charlie Parker crime novels, I mis-read the author’s forename, thinking it was ‘Joseph’ Connolly. That was an easy mistake to make, for this marvellous book by John Connolly would more naturally fit with the previous works of Joseph, (I hope John C will forgive me). This novel has obviously been a labour of love for John Connolly – it’s certainly very far removed from his crime novels – you have been warned.

Then, before you start reading, there is the issue of the hat on the cover – don’t you immediately think of Charlie Chaplin? Right era, but wrong hat-wearer, for He is a novel about Stan Laurel, the British half of comedy legends Laurel and Hardy.

In this fictional biography, Connolly employs a dual timeline approach. We have the very elderly Stan living out his last days by the sea in a Santa Monica apartment with his fourth wife Ida. He never stops thinking about Hardy, whom Stan always refers to by his nickname:

At the Oceana Apartments, he is with Babe.
Babe is dead.
But Babe is always with him.

Connolly also works forward from the inception of Laurel’s career as a music hall performer in Glasgow, where his family had moved from Ulverston. Laurel had a natural talent and joined Fred Karno’s troupe, which was going to America. This was where Laurel first encountered Charlie Chaplin. Laurel understudied him and revered Chaplin as an actor and comedian, and although they remained friends, he felt forever not worthy of Chaplin’s friendship and would never say a bad word about him.

But eventually, he meets ‘Babe’ – Oliver Hardy, when they both work for Broncho Billy Anderson on a film in 1921. Laurel was ever grateful to Broncho Billy Anderson:

Whenever he can, he gives credit to Broncho Billy Anderson, because Broncho Billy Anderson performs two great favors for him, two acts that change his life forever.
The first is that Broncho Billy Anderson believes in him.
The second is that Broncho Billy Anderson introduces him to Babe.

But the silent movie era was on its way out. It is 1929 when Laurel gets his first talking line, he’s terrified of drying:

Babe is talking, but he cannot identify Babe’s words. He has a line, but what use is a line if it cannot be spoken?
Babe finishes talking.
Babe waits.
He opens his mouth, and two syllables emerge, his first words of recorded speech on film.
Any nuts?

When Hardy died in 1957, Laurel was devastated. Previously Laurel had quipped to his third wife that ‘Babe may outlive me’. The two men completely gelled with each other, their friendship was trusting and deep, they never had any disagreements and always supported each other. But neither were angels – there were many troubled marriages, divorces and affairs for both – and they kept their lawyer Ben Shipman very busy sorting out the alimony. Laurel seems incapable of living on his own.

Their complicated personal lives are set against the world of the Hollywood studio system, the transition from silent film to the talkies, two-reel shorts to longer features, the rivalry between studios and not forgetting all the rotten contracts. In the early 1930s Laurel would be in dispute with Hal Roach, who was playing games with their contracts; he ended up fired for a while, but Roach needed Laurel and Hardy together. It seems that only Chaplin (him again!) was able to dictate terms in Hollywood. Connolly captures the Golden Age of comedy as seen from their side particularly well.

Stylistically, this is a slow burn novel; it takes a while to really get going. However, and I rarely say this about longer books, I didn’t begrudge its 464 pages at all, getting totally immersed in the story. Both timelines are written entirely in the present tense, which gives everything a slightly dreamy veneer – if you imagine Laurel’s typical laid-back delivery, this is the feel I got from the text. That said, he clearly wasn’t the innocent he portrayed on the screen and despite all his woman troubles, he comes across as a decent man. After Hardy died and Laurel retired from acting, he relished continuing to correspond with and talk to their fans. Connolly’s research is second to none, but in his author’s note at the end, he makes it clear that his version of Stan Laurel is a construct. I really enjoyed this extraordinary fictionalised life – and have a new found appreciation of Laurel and Hardy’s art on screen, (whom I always preferred to Chaplin anyway!).

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

John Connolly, He (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017). 978-1473663664, 464pp., paperback.

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