In a departure from his 14 previous novels, Stewart O’Nan has chosen F. Scott Fitzgerald as the protagonist of his current work, West of Sunset. The O’Nan / Fitzgerald combination proves remarkably fitting. One of our foremost novelists is writing about a literary icon, author of The Great Gatsby , no less. Just as O’Nan succeeded in drawing readers inside the heads of ordinary people like the elderly widow Emily in Emily Alone, or Manny DeLeon, the hapless chain-restaurant manager in Last Night at the Lobster, he inhabits Fitzgerald’s very being and authentically depicts the writer’s fluctuating mindsets during the final years of his life. He died from a heart attack in 1940 when he was 44.
Sadly, because Fitzgerald’s alcoholism defines his life, it serves as a tenacious undercurrent to O’Nan’s story. Yet it is the portrayal of Fitzgerald’s turbulent relationships with his wife Zelda, from whom he lives apart, and with the attractive gossip columnist and Hollywood celebrity, Sheilah Graham, that gives the novel coherence and is O’Nan’s primary achievement. Another of the book’s strong points is its use of flashbacks. In anecdotes from the pre-Zelda years, we observe Scott as a child growing up, unhappily for the most part, in St. Paul; as an injudicious Princeton undergrad; and as a young man smitten with the beautiful Ginevra.
By the time the novel opens in 1937 Fitzgerald’s literary prominence as well as his Jazz Age glamour days are long over. Not for a decade or more have he and his theatrical and uninhibited wife Zelda danced naked in the fountain at New York’s Plaza Hotel. “Together,” writes O’Nan, “in another age, they’d been famous for their fashionable trespasses, the stuff of magazine covers and scandal sheets… “
O’Nan points out that despite all they’d squandered, Fitzgerald would never dispute that “they were made for each other.” Zelda was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in 1930. Clearly, his fall had been less spectacular and far less punitive than Zelda’s. Because Zelda has for years resided in a Maryland mental hospital, she and her husband experience only fleeting interactions. “How expert she was ,” declares O’Nan, “in wielding her helplessness.”
To pay Zelda’s hospital bills and their daughter’s exorbitant school fees, Fitzgerald once again in his life turns to writing movie scripts in Hollywood. In depicting Fitzgerald’s working days at major Hollywood studios, O’Nan treats readers to cameo appearances by the likes of Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart. Skillfully, he weaves these celebrities into the action of the story.
Occasionally O’Nan conjures the aura of Hollywood with an atypically long sentence. For example:
“Unlike Mayer and Goldwyn and Laemmle, [Selznick] hadn’t sold buttons in Minsk or shirtwaists in Krakow on the narrowest of margins to leave the bosom of the family and endure weeks in steerage dreaming of streets paved in gold only to wash up in the shtetl-like tenements of the Lower East Side where daily he fought his neighbors, those same margins and the Italian rackets, earning a second fortune he used to bankroll a third and, as mere by-product, creating from the dusty foothills of West L.A. a gilded fiefdom called Hollywood.”
While it’s true that readers of West of Sunset witness the disintegration of an American legend, at the same time they experience an intimate portrayal of a flawed man who never gave up – even as his endeavors, large and small, were consistently thwarted. In the final year of his life he makes impressive progress on a novel titled The Last Tycoon which would be published posthumously. In a nuanced tribute to Fitzgerald’s character, O’Nan comments, “Whatever happiness he might find, [Zelda’s] misery would always be his.”