Fiction: Imagining the Unhappy Life of Stan Laurel

HE
By John Connolly
456 pp. Quercus. $26.99.

There is nothing surprising anymore about a sad clown.

So many melancholy tales have been told about the tortured lives of comedians that the pertinent question about a new story is not whether the entertainer is miserable but why. In his deeply researched historical novel “He” — which recounts the tumultuous life and triumphant career of Stan Laurel, the slender half of the double act of Laurel and Hardy — the Irish mystery and thriller writer John Connolly proposes some options.

There’s the long shadow of Charlie Chaplin, whose monumental success and undeniable genius torment Laurel, and the usual exploitation by Hollywood producers like the titan of silent comedy, Hal Roach. Then there’s the amoral, demanding “Audience,” always capitalized and often ominous. “The Audience will laugh at a cat being burned,” one characteristically cynical line begins. “The Audience will laugh because others are laughing.”

Written in spare, fractured prose from the perspective of a narrator who seems to be reporting from inside Laurel’s mind, this odd and ambitious book is so dense with show-business detail that it may alienate nonfans. Even Laurel and Hardy lovers may be put off by its somber, experimental mood. Laurel, the British vaudevillian who successfully made the transition from the silent era to talking pictures, is the center of the story but his name is never mentioned. He is referred to only as “he,” a self-conscious flourish in a narrative preoccupied with the disconnect between public and private lives.

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The novel begins with, and continually returns to, the end of Laurel’s life. His mind is diminishing as he chases “butterfly memories,” which announce the subjective perspective of what follows. His partner, the American performer Oliver Hardy, comes off much better, a good friend whose loyalty provides Laurel’s one emotional anchor in a life of transitory relationships.

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