West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan, review by Shirley Wells
“Write what you want to know” rather than “write what you know.” Stewart O'Nan says he followed this advice during the research and writing of his latest novel, West of Sunset. And, really, who wouldn't want to know more about the celebrated but also much-maligned F. Scott Fitzgerald?
[Confession: I have an undying love of all things Fitzgerald. And I also think contemporary novelist Stewart O'Nan is pretty great. So now you've been warned about any lack of objectivity you may encounter here.]
Many of us are introduced to Fitzgerald's writing in high school where we also learn about his tragic wife Zelda and this golden couple's “life in the fast lane” romance during the 20s. But by 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald was considered by many to be a “has been.” He was living in Hollywood, working intermittently as a screenwriter, attempting to restore some financial stability, and socializing with other infamous alcoholics such as Humphrey Bogart and Ernest Hemingway.
Zelda was struggling with mental illness in a sanitorium in Asheville, North Carolina, while daughter Scottie was away at school. Occasionally, the three would attempt a vacation together, but many of these getaways were interrupted by Zelda's manic behavior. During his time in Hollywood, Fitzgerald fell in love with Sheilah Grahame, a young British woman who had reinvented herself in a Gatsby-esque fashion. Her youthful, blond beauty reminded Scott of the young Zelda, who he never stopped caring for, both financially and emotionally. But Miss Grahame was helping Scott to regain his health and sense of self.
West of Sunset covers these last years of Fitzgerald's life when he was privately working on The Last Tycoon while employed as a hired hand to fix Hollywood screenplays, mostly at MGM. He—along with other writers such as Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley--were often bounced from one movie to the next by capricious studio heads. O'Nan deftly captures the Hollywood studio system of the late 1930s as well as Fitzgerald's attempt to recover the respect he once held as a writer while fighting the temptations of alcohol and the ravages of tuberculosis. With his use of a third-person omniscient narrator, O'Nan brings the reader inside Fitzgerald's thought processes, emphasizing his characteristic “insider/outsider” stance.
Fitzerald once said, “There are no second acts in American lives,” yet he always knew he had talent, and he never stopped believing in himself, always reaching for “the silver pepper of the stars.” Relying upon the treasure trove of letters Fitzgerald left behind, O'Nan's intimate account of the last three years of Scott's life provides a sympathetic portrait of a troubled and deeply flawed genius who was determined to keep trying to do his best work right up until the end. F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at age forty-four.
(Viking Press has available online a map of all the places where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived and worked in Hollywood. You can view this map HERE.)