He: A Novel by John Connolly

The Blurb On The Back:

An extraordinary imagining of the life of one of the greatest screen comedians the world has ever known: a man who knew both adoration and humiliation; who loved, and was loved in turn; who betrayed, and was betrayed; who never sought to cause pain to others, yet left a trail of affairs and broken marriages in his wake …

And whose life was ultimately defined by one relationship of such tenderness and devotion that only death could sever it: his partnership with the man he knew as Babe.

he is Stan Laurel.

You can order He: A Novel by John Connolly from Amazon USA,  Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s 1965.  Stan Laurel lives with his fourth wife Ida in the Oceana Apartments in Santa Monica, California.  He is old.  He is sick.  He feels death’s approach but while he is waiting, he remembers what happened in his life.  He remembers his career – the slow rise as he worked the vaudeville circuit waiting for his opportunity to break into movies, the time spent learning the movie craft, waiting for movies to pay off, and the moment when the stars aligned and he met the man with whom his name would be linked forever – Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy …

John Connolly’s fictionalised look at the life of Stan Laurel is an absorbing and fascinating read with Connolly clearly having done his research on the man’s life. The literary conceit of never mentioning Stan by his name mostly works and he gets the rhythms of the Laurel and Hardy dialogue right together with the peculiar nature of their relationship, but Laurel the man remains a mystery as Connolly never quite gets what made him tick.

Connolly has clearly done a lot of research on Stan Laurel’s life as he name checks the movies he was in and biographical details from his life and marriages with Connolly fleshing these details by imagining Laurel’s emotions and motivations through these times.  Sometimes this works, e.g. I believed in his complicated relationship with Charlie Chaplin (who peppers the book like a ghost, by terms inspiring and provoking envy in Laurel as he evaluates his work against Chaplin’s) but there are times when it doesn’t quite seem right – as if Connolly hasn’t really gotten under the skin of the man to work out what makes him tick.  This is particularly the case with his marriages – Laurel married one wife twice but Connolly doesn’t convey a real emotional sense of why and his relationship with his ex-wives is something that he doesn’t really dwell on other than in a biographical, almost off-hand sense (even Lois, his first wife who he professed to want to marry again).  I also wanted to understand why he was so quick to get married and, in one case, to such an unsuitable woman but again, Connolly doesn’t go deep into this and seems to boil it down to loneliness and an inability to be alone.

The relationship between Laurel and Hardy has that same weird superficial quality but in this case it works much more effectively given that the men’s relationship came from their professional closeness rather than the personal.  I very much enjoyed the brief snatches of dialogue between them where Connolly really nails the delivery of their screen personas and I completely believed in how the men offered each other support (e.g. cover and a lack of judgment for their respective affairs) and how there was real love and respect between them without their living in each other’s pockets.  If you’ve seen the film STAN AND OLLIE then there is some overlap here in that Connolly does mention their last tour of England but otherwise but there is no sense of friction between the two men and no mention of Ollie having betrayed Stan by opting to stay with Hal Roach (I don’t know enough about the history to say which take is closer to the historic record).

Also well portrayed are the scenes between Laurel and his long-suffering lawyer, Ben Shipman, which contain a lot of humour (especially as Shipman tries to untangle Laurel from his marriages and contractual disputes with Roach) and which Connolly imbues with the pacing of a 1930s screwball comedy.  

The f-bomb gets dropped a lot in the book and while I’m no prude, there are times when I wondered how much was accurate for the time and the man. However the pacing of the book works well, with Connolly balancing the flashbacks with Laurel’s current situation and I found it really easy to engage with as the writing style kept me turning the pages.  The literary conceit of not identifying Stan by his name in the book worked for me (although your mileage may vary) – mainly because it reminded me a lot of the way Hilary Mantel writes the Thomas Cromwell books – but there were a couple of instances where Connolly strains to maintain the effect.

All in all, if you’re interested in Stan Laurel then I think this is an entertaining and, for the most part, informative fictionalised look at his life that does get across both the greatness of the man’s work together with the messy complexity of his private life.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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