The Dick Kallman of Thomas Mallon’s smart new novel “Up With the Sun” is a petty self-promoter, a pompous ingratiator who can’t get out of his own way long enough to let his middling talent shine through. He’s based on a real-life stage and TV actor, also named Dick Kallman, who was found murdered, with his boyfriend, in his posh Manhattan apartment in 1980. Mallon, the author of other historical novels including “Fellow Travelers” (about two closeted gay men caught up in McCarthyism in ‘50s Washington, D.C.) and “Watergate,” has a gift for mixing dogged research with a keen understanding of power and human foibles. He conjures empathy for the most despicable of characters; “Up With the Sun” makes you want to punch Kallman in the face, but not until you turn the page to see who he’s trying to con next.
Mallon makes the shrewd move of enlisting a more appealing (and fictional) character as narrator, at least for every other chapter. Matt Liannetto is a steadily employed musical theater pianist whose sardonic wit is matched by a generous spirit. In telling this story of a dead man, and the jury trial of his alleged killers, Matt often assumes a tone reminiscent of Joe Gillis, who narrates “Sunset Boulevard” from his position as a corpse floating in a swimming pool (Mallon directly references that movie on more than one occasion). But there’s a sweetheart lurking beneath his cynicism, a romanticism and forgiveness that allow him to care about even Dick, whose primary show business trait is his unlikability.
“Up With the Sun” runs along two narrative tracks. One, set in the early ‘80s, is narrated by Matt before and after Kallman’s murder and includes the characters that enter Matt’s orbit because of the crime, for better (his new boyfriend, a police clerk unofficially investigating the murders) and worse (Delores Gray, another real-life figure. She’s a self-absorbed actress/singer clinging to her modest glory years, and Kallman’s partner in an antique business that specializes in items of dubious provenance. They’re perfect for each other).
The other chapters trace Kallman’s rise, such as it is, and self-inflicted fall. Confined largely to touring productions of Broadway hits, he reaches his professional peak as the star of the TV comedy “Hank,” which ran, in real life and in the novel, for one season on NBC in the mid-’60s. It wasn’t very good, but that’s probably not why it was canceled. Kallman’s noxious personality doomed it from the start. As his agent tells him, “You’re the first person in history to be the subject of a takedown profile in TV Guide.”
Nobody likes the guy – except, perhaps, Mallon. The author is fascinated with, even sympathetic to, this blinkered, barely closeted has been/never was, and he finds humor in the darker corners of Kallman’s life. Kallman’s narcissistic mother sends her son to her spiritual adviser, an Episcopal priest more interested in fellating his headstrong charge than showing him the light. But Mallon also gives his protagonist a broken heart to nurse, a reason for lashing out at the world like a spoiled, vengeful brat. He carries a bright torch for another actor, Kenneth Nelson, who turned him down back when they were young cast members of the Broadway show “Seventeen” (Matt was the pianist). Nelson is Kallman’s Rosebud, the impetus for his lifetime of woe. Except, unlike Charles Foster Kane, Dick Kallman rises to no heights. He’s a mediocrity, and this, along with his murder, is what seems to intrigue Mallon most. This is the kind of guy Hollywood chews up and spits out on a regular basis. They just usually don’t end up with their brains splattered on the floor in an antiques deal gone bad.
Much of the fun in “Up With the Sun” comes from Mallon’s treatment of the parade of showbiz players that cross paths with Kallman. Some of them are decent enough people, including Nelson, who ended up moving to London, where he died in 1993, and Robert Osborne, who had the good sense to get out of the acting rat race and become a Hollywood historian and beloved on-air personality for Turner Classic Movies before he died in 2017. Then there’s Dyan Cannon, whose finger Kallman smashes in a door onstage because she’s been stealing too many laughs during a production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” And Lucille Ball, so put off by Kallman during a workshop put on by her Desilu Productions that she hangs him out to dry for the rest of his career.
Where Mallon sprinkles his celebs you can bet their activities and résumés are rooted at least partially in reality (he includes photos of Kallman at various points of his career, adding to the novel’s documentary sheen). So it’s telling that the book’s genuine good guy, Matt, is a fictional creation. Matt is a sort of everyman observer and survivor of Hurricane Kallman – except he ends up facing a far more formidable opponent. You’d be forgiven for growing angry at Matt’s unfair demise. But in a novel laden with life-like touches, this one may be the most realistic of all.
In the end, “Up With the Sun” has its cake and eats it, too. It’s an ode to the more poisonous elements of show business that it also manages to bask in the ridiculousness of it all. You won’t like Dick Kallman. But good luck taking your eyes off him.
Up With the Sun
By Thomas Mallon
Knopf, 352 pages, $28
Chris Vognar, a freelance culture writer, was the 2009 Nieman Arts and Culture Fellow at Harvard University.