Offstage Drama

REVIEW: 'Up With the Sun' by Thomas Mallon

Dick Kallman and Linda Foster/Thomas Mallon's Up With the Sun.
June 11, 2023

Nicole Kidman has range. She’s believable as a rich lady with a sketchy husband, a rich lady who goes absolutely nuts for movie theaters, or a rich lady with a sketchy British husband.

The woman is believable as absolutely anyone—anyone, that is, except Lucille Ball.

Sure, she’s got the red hair, but her restrained, vulpine face, and always-kinda-there Australian accent make her a poor choice for the boisterous and expressive American comedienne. Of course, that didn’t stop Aaron Sorkin from casting Kidman as the distaff half of Desilu in Being the Ricardos, alongside—verisimilitude be damned—Javier Bardem.

Sorkin brushed off the ample casting critiques, insisting that Kidman and Bardem’s looks mattered less than how they read the scripts. This is consistent with Sorkin’s approach to historical events, where accuracy is subordinated to impression. Lucy and Desi, Mark Zuckerberg, the Chicago 7—they’re all just set pieces in a tableau, moved hither and thither by the maestro to spin tales of class, justice, and honor.

In Up With The Sun, Thomas Mallon takes a similar approach to the story of Dick Kallman, a B-list actor who struggled for fame on Broadway and in Hollywood and was murdered in his Manhattan apartment in 1980. Like Kallman, most of the historical figures Mallon employs were largely overlooked in their time and have been all but forgotten in ours. But if the collective anonymity of Mallon’s dramatis personae makes Up With The Sun a bad historical novel, it does so in the service of making it a good novel, period.

Up With The Sun is primarily narrated by Matt Liannetto, a fictional theater pianist who dines with Kallman on the night of his murder and is driven to investigate the circumstances of the actor’s untimely demise. Liannetto is unassuming, a middle-aged gay man attempting to navigate the highs and lows of pre-Giuliani New York with the help of his flashy, younger love interest and his daughter, "the smash-hit feature of an otherwise inadvisable marriage."

Liannetto thrives in anonymity, preferring the obscurity of the orchestra pit to the spotlight (and, at least at first, the confines of the closet to life as a gay man). He offers a useful contrast to Kallman, whose life was driven by a desperate quest for fame and affirmation. Kallman was a terrible person by all accounts, which explains why he never really made any meaningful connections with friends, relatives, or costars.

But Kallman’s villainy also means that the chapters told from his perspective are consistently the book’s best. These deliciously evil episodes show our anti-hero slamming starlets' hands in doors, plotting revenge on fellow ensemble members, and trying to weasel his way into Lucille Ball’s inner circle. (And yes, that last one actually happened).

This is hardly the first foray into historical fiction for Mallon, an accomplished writer whose past novels cover everything from the Lincoln assassination to the Watergate break-in. But this novel seems very of the moment, as denizens of literary TikTok—"BookTok," as it’s known—flock to the novels of Taylor Jenkins Reid.

Up With The Sun shares both structure and setting with some of Reid’s most successful books. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, which has sold over a million copies and spent 37 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, largely takes place in Dick Kallman’s Hollywood. Like Up With The Sun, Reid’s Malibu Rising alternates between mid-century Hollywood and the early 1980s.

But while Reid uses history to dress up well-trod, book club plotlines, Mallon uses the past as a case study of the ideas he’s interested in exploring. The book so frequently shifts time, place, and perspective that the distinction between fact and fiction hardly matters, and indeed begins to blur. There is only one person alive who could confidently identify which characters are historical and which are fabrications, but he's busy recording the Commentary podcast.

This may be a problem for a different book, but it is Up With The Sun’s biggest strength. Ultimately, the book isn’t a love story or a whodunit. It’s not about Hollywood and Broadway, or fatherhood and sexuality, or who killed Dick Kallman—though, of course, it’s a bit about all of those things. Up With The Sun is really a story about people out of place and their struggles to stay afloat.

Kallman was a "throwback" who labored under "the illusion that show-business past was still show-business present." Always a few steps out of vogue, he warbled his way through World War I-era ballads in the Rat Pack era and acted like it was still the swinging ’60s as crime, disease, and Sweeney Todd kept Manhattan under a perpetual pall.

The city is also a liminal space for Liannetto, who at first seems as adrift as Kallman. He’s a political outsider who says he misses Jimmy Carter but appears hopeful that Ronald Reagan will bring America out of a recession, a theater guy who loves living in an apartment building full of bohemians but yearns for someone to save New York from disorder. He’s also adrift romantically, finally overcoming "perpetual" guilt over his sexuality and entering the dating pool at the exact moment the AIDS crisis upends gay life in New York and across the country.

In spite of all that, Liannetto manages to ground himself by seeking out others and cultivating the relationships that constitute a life. This is not a groundbreaking point, but this is what makes Up With The Sun such an enjoyable read. It’s not pretentious or preachy, and it doesn’t have a wizard or a strong female protagonist written for Nicole Kidman to play badly on Amazon Prime. It’s a solid, enjoyable novel. And that is an accomplishment in itself.

Up With the Sun: A Novel
by Thomas Mallon
Knopf, 352 pp., $28