Connolly’s love is evident in his impressive amount of research on and deep knowledge of his subject. The golden age of Hollywood is vividly and authentically drawn, with asides about the gossip, bed-hopping, drug use, untimely deaths, and subsequent obituaries that began with the phrase, 'Formally in Pictures.' This dazzling and altogether wonderful book sets a new standard for the biographical historical novel.
Fans of Laurel and Hardy might feel outraged by the portrait of Stan Laurel painted by John Connolly in he. There is little here of the lovable innocence of the star’s screen persona. Instead we are shown a troubled, difficult man who drinks heavily, screws up his relationships with women and broods about the unmatchable genius of Charlie Chaplin, whose understudy he had once been ... Connolly uses some stylistic eccentricities in telling his tale. Laurel is never referred to by name, only as 'he,' but every other man in the book has his name written out in full. Initially disconcerting, the usage soon comes to seem no more than a further reflection of the originality of this fine novel.
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 ... Connolly’s staccato prose leans on short sentences and chapters (there are 203) that at their best evoke the style of Samuel Beckett, an admirer of Laurel and Hardy. The novel nicely brings Laurel down to earth ... one closes this book still unsure about who Stan Laurel really was, though this may be part of the point. Trav S.D., who wrote the excellent history Chain of Fools, once described Laurel on screen as 'completely vacant, like a beast of burden, like a black hole.' Connolly takes us behind the scenes but the view isn’t much different. Laurel remains a cipher, a comic type, a star without a name.
The subject of this extraordinary novel is movie comic Stan Laurel. But he’s never referred to by name. It’s always 'he,' 'his,' or 'him.' The conceit should be off-putting but somehow isn’t. It works, mirroring how Laurel sees himself: never at peace, only completed (and for the moment) when working with his partner 'Babe,' Oliver Hardy, the fat man to his skinny one in classic comedy skits that span the ages of silent films and talkies ... Connolly makes his literary debut with this exceptional novel about a comic genius who never fully came to terms with his own worth. Who wouldn’t want to read this lovely book?
At times, Connolly reaches for lyricism and finds only sentimentality. At times he employs a too-easy psychoanalyzing that reduces characters—and which stands out in a novel that insists on the complexity of humans and their motives. But the flaws are finally no match for the affection that the author feels for his subject, for the genuine melancholy that wells up as Laurel remembers his past from the comfort of the small apartment in Santa Monica where he spent his last years and for the intelligence and decency with which Connolly handles potentially salacious material ... It's the best tribute to this novel that by the end of it you feel you have been given the full texture of a life. This exploration of how art often diverges from the reality of the artist's life is not only moving, but also bracingly adult.