Book Review: West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan

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“American Dreamer” 2016 by jpbohannon

In the May 17th issue of The London Review of Books, the historian Michael Wood asked this question about two current jazz biopics–Miles Ahead and Born to be Blue:

“Why can’t we see early success as anything other than a burden?”

While he was talking about Miles Davis and Chet Baker, the subjects of the two films he was reviewing, there are scores of others to whom we can reference.

And probably no greater example is that of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Always with high ambitions, Fitzgerald burst onto and into the literary scene in 1920 when he was merely 23 years old with his debut novel, This Side of Paradise. The first printing sold out in three days, but more importantly it allowed him to marry Zelda Sayer–who a year earlier had broken off their engagement when she considered he couldn’t support her in the style she was used to.  They married a week after publication.

The Fitzgeralds’s fame was as pyrotechnic as the ‘twenties themselves.  More than the fact that Fitzgerald’s stories  were regularly appearing  in the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s (and were providing Scott with a very handsome income), their lives were the stuff of tabloids and gossip, of excess and extravagance.

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Scott and Zelda on the French Riviera/gettyimages

He was the King of “the Jazz Age” (a term that he coined) and Zelda was the Queen of the Flappers. Their escapades in New York, in Paris, in Rome, in the South of France were the stuff of legend. They burned brightly and largely.

In deed and in myth, the Fitzgeralds put the “roaring” into the “Roarin’ Twenties.”

But then like the decade itself, it all came to a crashing halt. Each of Fitzgerald’s subsequent novels were less and less successful. The Great Gatsby garnered little critical or commercial attention and Tender is the Night even less so. Beset by  financial problems–exacerbated by his alcoholism, deteriorating health, and Zelda’s mental instability–Fitzgerald focused on writing “commercial stories” for the drying-up magazine market. Ultimately he headed to Hollywood, contracted to write screenplays for MGM.

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Cover of Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset

And it is here, just as he is about to leave for the West Coast, that Stewart O’Nan picks him up in West of Sunset, a poignant re-telling of Fitzgerald’s last three years.

 

It would not be a spoiler to say that the main character–F.Scott Fitzgerald–dies in the end. At 44 years of age. Nor to say that Dorothy Parker has the best lines (e.g. “She’s slept with everyone in Hollywood except Lassie.”) This is all common knowledge or is expected by anyone slightly aware of the literary world of the 20s and 30s.

But what is not commonly realized or considered or witnessed is the emotional pain, the loss of confidence and the genuine anguish that Fitzgerald suffered in those final three years of his life. This we glean from reading West of Sunset.  In O’Nan’s novel we see a Fitzgerald struggling financially–his wife’s sanitarium fees and his daughter’s tuition are constants–as well as struggling with the seeming inanity of Hollywood productions and his own demons. Getting a “screen-credit” is essential and far too often projects are cancelled, rewritten beyond recognition, or given to another writer–writers that a once confident Fitzgerald had looked down upon at the height of his career. (Ultimately, he ended up with only one screen credit.)

At first, I felt that O’Nan was taking the easy road.  Characters such as Hemingway and Bogart, both who enter the story early–are overlarge and don’t need much development. But they get it anyway. Bogart proves to be  a good friend though an enabler to Fitzgerald’s alcoholism. (Despite Fitzgerald’s having split Bogart’s lip in a fight long before the book begins.)  And Hemingway, enters the story early, asks a favor of Fitzgerald, and disappears, though never quite gone from Fitzgerald’s mind. We see the struggling and “washed-up” Fitzgerald, often wondering about Hemingway’s reaction to something he did or did not, to his successes and his screw-ups. The Hemingways and Bogarts, the Shirley Temples and Joan Crawfords, the Selzniks, Mankiewiczes, and Mayers, they are all extras, mere shades flitting by as Fitzgerald battles against the currents of rejection, failure,  physical weakness and his past. Even Sheilah Graham, the strongest and most able of those around him, could not get close enough to save him from himself.

F. Scott Fitgerald and Sheila Graham

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham/Princeton University Library

I anticipated –and enjoyed–the Hollywood gossip and the “inside” view of the golden days of the big studios, but what O’Nan has done so well in West of Sunset was to capture Fitzgerald as he struggled to deal with his wife Zelda’s madness, his daughter’s growing independence, his love affair with Sheilah Graham, and  his debilitating alcoholism. (It seems every time that Fitzgerald leaves Hollywood to visit Zelda back East, he returns either sick or beaten-up as a result of his excesses.)

In the end, the novel is not solely about a famous American artist who burned out and died early. That story is almost hackneyed. (Take your pick, David Foster Wallace, Robert Bolaño, John Kennedy Toole. The list goes on for much too long.)  Instead, it is a moving portrait of a man, a talented man, trying to keep his head above water while the world–and the fading hope of the American Dream– keeps dragging him under.

At times, O’Nan’s prose is evocative of Fitzgerald at his very best. The keen observations,  the golden descriptions, the accurate judgement is richly reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s writing. But O’Nan is no mere parodist, and West of Sunset is not a pastische. It is a wonderful novel–it would have been wonderful even if we didn’t know the protagonist so well.  As the writer George Saunders described the book, it is “one brilliant American writer meditating on another.” And that is very true.  O’Nan’s West of Sunset is intelligent, imaginative and thought-provoking. It is a novel that echoes in one’s mind over and over again.

•       •       •       •       •       •       •

This spring I have thought a lot about F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have taught Gatsby in three separate courses,  I have read Fitzgerald’s notebooks written during the last years of his life, and I have read Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset. (This all sounds more deliberate than it actually was–more coincidence than good planning.)

So much has Fitzgerald and Zelda and Sheila Graham, and Gatsby and Daisy and Nick Carraway been on my mind these days, that I have come to see our spring itself as a mirror of Fitzgerald’s career. Spring 2016 started out unseasonably warm in March, with records high temps, middled off in April, and has been abysmally cold and wet through most of May. It has followed the arc of Fitzgerald’s life.

However, the exception is that after his death, both he and his works have skyrocketed in estimation and entered the pantheon of American Literature.

Who knows what this summer will bring.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan

  1. Pingback: Movie Review: Genius, directed by Michael Grandage | j. p. bohannon

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