Thomas Mallon reinvents the life of Dick Kallman : NPR

Standing with the Sun, by Thomas Mallon

Google the real-life actor, “Dick Kallman” and you’ll see one of those faces just missing. Here’s how Thomas Mallon, in his dazzling new historical novel, Standing with the sundescribes the look of young Kallman when he made his stage debut in 1951:

He had a thin, shiny New York kiss, the kind that made you wonder: Italian? Jewish? A Less Perfect Tony Curtis; magnetic and playful.

Kallman is one of the two central characters in Standing with the sun. He was an actor, mostly on stage, from the early 1950s to the 1970s. For a time, he was even a comedic protege of Lucille Ball and starred for a season in the television sitcom. Skein.

“Forgettable” is an adjective that attaches to Kallman’s career like dust to a ceiling fan; but his violent death in 1980 propelled him to a different kind of notoriety. Kallman was shot and killed, along with his lover, by three robbers in his Manhattan home.

This townhouse also served as a showroom for his antique business, which he called “Possessions of Prominence”. For Mallon, this absurdly inflated name reveals something essentially off-putting about Kallman’s personality. As Mallon imagines, Kallman is just too much; too “aggressively insinuating” with casting directors and powerhouse stars like Lucille Ball; overly driven by an “ambition” that “remained like a cowlick or a horn, fatal to an audience’s complete belief in almost any character they played.” While Mallon portrays Kallman, he was his own worst enemy, much like Richard Nixon, whose psyche Mallon also delved into in fiction.

Standing with the sun is a novel about showbiz activists and a certain slice of gay life in mid-to-late 20th century America. Mallon’s other main character here is his occasional narrator, a wry, sweet gay man named Matt Liannetto, who is a musical accompanist on several of the shows Kallman appears on.

In Mallon’s imagination, Matt visits Kallman the night he dies; curiously, the miser Kallman gives Matt a piece of costume jewelry, which turns out to be, in Alfred Hitchcock’s famous term, the “McGuffin” that holds the secret to Kallman’s murder motive.

Throughout his writing career, Mallon has perfected the art of immersing readers in the past without making us feel like we’re strolling through a sham like Main Street in Disneyland, USA. Unlike his anti-hero Kallman, Mallon never goes too heavy. For example, Mallon has an excellent expert appreciation for the commonplace language of the time: he has Kallman at one point exclaim, “How about that!” (When was the last time you heard someone say that old phrase?)

The celebrities who populate this novel are mostly bygone B-listers like Kaye Ballard and Dolores Gray, as well as beloved old Turner Movie Classics host Robert Osborne. Lest the atmosphere get too nostalgic, too tearful, Mallon’s signature spirit remains crisp as a piece of kettle. He’s clearly having fun, for example, making up a bad newspaper review of Kallman’s overaction, in which the fictional reviewer comments, “Mr. Kallman probably puts sugar in his saccharin.” Good line.

Mallon’s best historical novels—and this is one of them—are haunted by an acute awareness of the transience of things. So the fame and magic of the greatest performances, like Judy Garland’s 1961 return to Carnegie Hall, is only momentary. Kallman is in the audience for this show, along with fading Hollywood stars and around a thousand teary-eyed gay men. Kallman, also gay but dismissively dry-eyed, mused that, “Everything that was broken in those guys, was reaching out and unleashing everything that was broken in her.”

Time passes and Judy and her fans disappear; entire worlds are wiped out. This sweeping novel takes readers back to the early days of the AIDS epidemic; an epidemic that Mallon himself experienced. Few months ago, the new yorker published excerpts from the diaries a young Mallon kept while living in New York City as “gay cancer” ravaged that city. These journal entries are immediate and devastating – as well as, improbably and thankfully, witty. As Standing with the sun comes to an end, we readers realize that AIDS is waiting in the wings, which makes our time – even with the entertaining, but obnoxious likes of Mallon’s Dick Kallman – all the more precious.


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