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Thomas Mallon, the D.C.-based author of 2012’s Watergate and 2019’s Landfall, understands the nuances of historical fiction. He knows the key to this genre is to realistically recreate historical events and personages. He achieved this in his previous works and accomplishes this in his latest novel, Up With the Sun, in which Mallon fictionalizes the botched robbery and murder of Dick Kallman, a former Broadway and TV star.
The novel opens on Feb. 23, 1980, the day after Kallman’s death, with the description of the murder scene: “God almighty! I saw this ultrasharp black-and-white image of Dick, in one of those Louis XV chairs … one side of his head pristine and the other side exploded.”
Steven Szladek, Kallman’s live-in lover, is situated, dead, next to Kallman, in their apartment on New York City’s Upper East Side, where they ran a fledgling antiques business. From here, Mallon’s prose thrums with nostalgia and anticipation.
The narration alternates between pianist Matt Liannetto’s first-person telling and a third-person omniscient voice. Liannetto, who met Kallman on Broadway, was at Kallman’s apartment the night of the murder, so he is a reliable narrator. Patiently, the pianist offers vital information about the police investigation, explains why Kallman was not a trustworthy friend, and introduces readers to some acquaintances. In several tender moments, Mallon writes about Liannetto’s relationship with police clerk Devin Arroyo. In the odd chapters, beginning with the very first chapter, Mallon turns back the clock to focus on Kallman’s career and social life starting in 1951. By pivoting between past and present with every other chapter, Mallon creates an echo chamber, helping us enjoy the bygone years of Hollywood and centering us directly in the middle of a murder mystery.
Kallman was a Lucille Ball protege who appeared in several Broadway shows, including 1951’s Seventeen, which starred Kenneth Nelson, and 1965’s Half a Sixpence. On TV, he played Hank Dearborn on the sitcom Hank. 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 actor, as well as Kallman’s reactions to Nelson’s constant rejections. On one occasion, Kallman tries to dish an unfavorable story about Nelson to a Hollywood Reporter columnist, but the journalist rebuffed the novice move. On another occasion, we read about Kallman smashing Dyan Cannon’s fingers during a performance because she was outshining him. “[By 1971] Dick had pretty much stopped wondering, since he pretty much had the answer … nobody who knew him, liked him,” the third-person omniscient voice tells readers. Nelson confirms Kallman’s belief through an epistle to our narrator, Liannetto: “I’m sorry I can’t write more about Dick. I disliked him for all the obvious reasons that most people did.”
Mallon’s perceptive knowledge of New York and Hollywood takes us inside Broadway venues such as the Broadhurst Theatre and the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre), and across the country to the Beverly Hilton ballroom for a Golden Globes ceremony, and dinner at West Hollywood restaurant Dan Tana’s where Kallman picked up a busboy. Mallon also writes about Rounds, a popular gay bar Arroyo frequents to obtain tips about Kallman and his lover’s murder.
Portions of the book introduce us to the three suspects and take us inside the police precinct and courtroom where the accused are tried for the murder and robbery. Before the trial though, the detective creates a vocal lineup for Liannetto. Composed of three policemen and a suspect standing behind a wall separating them from Liannetto, the detective prompts each person to speak in hopes that Liannetto can identify the killer’s voice. It is an important police tactic since the pianist did not see the killer’s face the night of the murders. But we’re warned: It is “something a little unusual,” and may not work in court. During the trial, however, the defendants are obsessed with an expensive pin Liannetto wears. This pin, which Kallman originally bought for Nelson, “was all [the killers] were after” the night of Feb. 22, 1980.
Because Mallon’s narrative moves shoulder to shoulder, it provides us with a glance into two different eras—mid-1900s show business and the 1980s grittiness of New York City. Mallon deftly creates an unlikable character in Kallman, brings in luminaries like Ball and Johnny Carson to further entrench us in the inner workings of show business, and creates an incident that just may help us understand why Kallman could not foster healthy relationships. For some, 1980s New York is almost synonymous with an epidemic. By the end of the book, we’re introduced—through Liannetto’s own declining health—to the scourge that would soon ravage bodies and spread through the queer communities of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco at a rapid pace. At the time, 1981, the disease was known as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, despite the reality that anyone can contract HIV) and it “felt more like a hallucination than a diagnosis.” Though there are a lot of sad incidents in the book, Mallon juxtaposes several uplifting moments to create a compelling page-turner.
Up With the Sun by Thomas Mallon comes out via Knopf Publishing on Feb. 7. Hardcover, 352 pages.