West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan Review

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<i>West of Sunset</i> by Stewart O'Nan Review

Two familiar quotations from revered American author F. Scott Fitzgerald have come to define the writer’s final years, each in its way emblematic of Fitzgerald’s titanic talent and well documented decline:

There are no second acts in American lives.

I’ve left my capacity for hoping on the little roads that led to Zelda’s sanitarium.

The first quote, unearthed among Fitzgerald’s notes for his unfinished last novel, The Last Tycoon, typifies the problematic side of Fitzgerald’s virtuosic genius: insightful, eloquent, alchemically agile at transmuting the personal into the universal … and also a little bit sloppy. The generally accepted interpretation of this quote holds that Fitzgerald lamented something akin to a line sung by a relatively resurgent 60-year-old Bob Dylan: “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.”

The problem with Fitzgerald’s “second acts” quote? In the world of Hollywood screenwriting where the author struggled in the last years of his life to script a return to literary glory, Fitzgerald’s life already approached the end of a devastating second act. Fitzgerald’s life lacked a third act: regeneration, redemption, resolution.

On the other hand, the second quote, conveyed in private correspondence, evokes with naked candor the irreversible dissipation of the last part of Fitzgerald’s life. Stewart O’Nan captures this final half-decade vividly in his new novel West of Sunset. O’Nan might accurately have subtitled it “The Hollywood Years.”

West of Sunset introduces F. Scott Fitzgerald at particularly low ebb. It begins in 1937 with Fitzgerald stationed on the periphery of the Asheville, North Carolina, sanitarium where his wife, Zelda, spent most of the last 12 years of her life. We find him holed up in Asheville’s Grove Park Inn, recovering from a relapse of the tuberculosis that first afflicted him in college, and trapped in a state of suspended animation by his wife’s hospitalization for congenital mental illness.

In the opening episode, Scott and Zelda undertake a dull and desultory outing at nearby Chimney Rock. As these former icons of the glamorous and hedonistic Jazz Age glumly declare themselves the king and queen “of things going wrong”—while otherwise keeping their conversation as bland, detached, and lightweight as possible—O’Nan seems to prepare readers for a dour downer of a book.

Anyone familiar with Fitzgerald’s last few years should expect nothing less. One thinks of Fitzgerald’s initial assessment of Joyce’s Ulysses: “There is something about middle-class Ireland that I find inordinately depressing.” It’s hard to imagine a phrase more descriptive of the years of frustration and failure that preceded Fitzgerald’s death in 1940.

In his 1950 novel The Disenchanted, Budd Schulberg fictionalized his brief and disastrous collaboration with Fitzgerald while contracted scriptwriters for the 1939 featherweight rom-com Winter Carnival. Schulberg claimed that when the film’s director told him he’d be working with Fitzgerald, he’d been surprised to discover that the once-famous author of The Great Gatsby was not dead. Despite the high regard in which readers and writers alike hold Fitzgerald today, the mid-1930s found him washed-up, forgotten, and deeply in debt. Although any modern-day Gatsby fan might reasonably wonder why a writer of Fitzgerald’s prodigious talent wasted his time on piffle like Winter Carnival, in truth, he had no choice.

Even with the relatively recent (1934) publication of his fourth novel, Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald’s books by 1937 had ceased to bring in any money. With Zelda’s hospitalization, daughter Scottie’s boarding school tuition, and his own seemingly incurable financial profligacy, Fitzgerald had to write whatever he thought he could sell to stay afloat. (This is one reason why his short story output, while including some of his finest work, remains startlingly uneven.) Consequently, in early 1937—the point at which West of Sunset picks up the story—Fitzgerald accepted a six-month gig at MGM Studios as an on-the-lot writer or rewriter for whatever projects, however inane, the studio chose to dump in his lap.

Fitzgerald’s four years in Hollywood yielded exactly one screenwriting credit and nothing to burnish his legacy except a promising unfinished novel. Those years also included the further deterioration of his marriage and of his relationship with his daughter, as well as numerous ugly alcoholic episodes and the ultimate decline of his always-shaky health.

If this sounds like the makings of a relentlessly maudlin novel, readers of West of Sunset will nonetheless find much to enthrall them. The detailed and resonant portrayal of Fitzgerald himself rings true, and we get an intimately imagined look inside his troubled but enduring relationship with Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham.

O’Nan draws heavily on Fitzgerald’s copious correspondence from this period, as well as numerous biographical accounts. West of Sunset comes to life in vividly imagined scenes and the striking verisimilitude of O’Nan’s invented dialogue, all of which make it very much a real novel (and very much an O’Nan novel at that, rather than an imitative attempt to approximate a “lost” Fitzgerald work). In this way, the fiction writer illuminates Fitzgerald’s inner life as no biography could.

After the frankly depressing first scene at Chimney Rock, O’Nan signals almost immediately on Fitzgerald’s arrival on the MGM lot (located at the writers’ wing affectionately nicknamed “the Iron Lung”) that his book will deliver more than doom and gloom. It comes with his gossipy, Nick and Nora Charles-esque portrayal of Dorothy Parker and her husband, Alan Campbell:

It was a curious sort of Boston marriage. They both preferred younger men, and fought like mongooses, yet were inseparable.

A subject like Fitzgerald’s troubled final years must capture that subject authentically without drowning in the doldrums of a mostly ruined life. West of Sunset finds buoyant and comic moments even in the author’s rocky relationships with the three women closest to him: Zelda, Scottie, and Sheilah. The novel maintains its focus by depicting the ways he disappointed each of them (as well as himself), rather than any broader failure as, say, a former world-class novelist or a spokesman for a generation whose time had passed.

West of Sunset also suggests the decline of Fitzgerald’s relationship with Ernest Hemingway, mostly through Hemingway’s near total absence from the story. Fitzgerald’s estrangement from Hemingway left him with an aching loss keenly felt in West of Sunset.

O’Nan also accomplishes something seemingly unprecedented in the checkered history of novelists writing about Fitzgerald: He presents the writer without sensationalism, without an axe to grind, and not as an icon of anything. He gets to the heart of the man without trying to settle any scores, the way Hemingway himself did by taking puerile potshots at Fitzgerald’s manhood in A Moveable Feast, or as Schulberg did in The Disenchanted. The latter book portrays the gin-fueled bender that got both writers fired from Winter Carnival as a one-sided (all-Fitzgerald) affair.

The Disenchanted careens wildly between casting Fitzgerald as too drunk and dissolute to hack together a passable script for a forgettable studio picture, while at the same time leaving behind (in Schulberg’s narrator’s hands, no less) the coulda-been unfinished novel of the century. By contrast, O’Nan paints a more measured and satisfying portrait. He presents a writer of flagging energy and conflicting priorities but undimmed talent, still capable of tremendous focus and diligence when given time to pursue a worthy project.

O’Nan also characterizes Fitzgerald as a deeply flawed man ever susceptible to alcoholic self-sabotage and increasingly saddled with a diseased heart. His Fitzgerald remains hopelessly committed to a marriage long since over. He’s a better father by correspondence than in person. He lives out of his element in the capricious and formula-driven world of Hollywood studios. Finally, he finds only intermittent success writing for money in a culture defined by elusive, ever-changing tastes.

Much of the book’s emotional impact emerges from Scott and his teenage daughter Scottie’s discussions of Zelda’s mental illness. Scottie has to play an inevitable role in handling her mother, even as she recognizes that maintaining the relationship offers no benefit to her.

O’Nan takes great care to depict an empathy that Scottie develops over time for her mother—or at least her maturing acceptance of the role her father needs her to play. One of the most powerful passages in the book follows an excerpt from a letter Scottie sends to her father. It updates him on Zelda’s most recent attempt to function outside of Highland Hospital in a prolonged visit to her mother’s Montgomery, Alabama, home. Scottie writes, “Is she better? No, but I think she’s happier.”

O’Nan’s Fitzgerald then reflects on his daughter’s letter, and how Zelda’s illness shapes all of their lives:

Wise Pie [Scottie’s nickname], voting for compromise. She’d been too young to know the real Zelda and so didn’t hold out for the impossible. Part of him understood she was lost from the beginning. Another part would never accept it, just as he both admitted and denied that he was at least partly to blame. The truth was in the middle, hidden from him, too close to his own failings. He had loved her above all others, but not enough—not as much, his conscience insisted, as he loved himself.

In fictionalizing a writer’s life long after fate subsumed it into legend, a life usually characterized in the most extreme terms, O’Nan looks for truth between extremes, in the middle. He attempts to make sense of a man understood, at best, “dimly and in flashes,” as one of Fitzgerald’s characters describes the Hollywood that the writer strained to master.

West of Sunset feels as close to rendering a fully realized Fitzgerald as any novel has to date.

Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.