‘West of Sunset’ by Stewart O’Nan – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Last Years in Hollywood

‘West of Sunset’ by Stewart O’Nan   (2015) – 289 pages   Grade: B+

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The author Stewart O’Nan has been called ‘the king of the quotidian’ by fellow author Elizabeth Strout.  That is certainly true of my favorite of his novels, ‘Last Night at the Red Lobster’, which follows the day-to-day running of a Red Lobster restaurant through the eyes of its manager.  That novel was an affecting look at the franchise restaurant business and the people who work in it.

At first glance one would think that the wildly flamboyant F. Scott Fitzgerald would not be the best subject for a writer of the everyday life like Stewart O’Nan.  Scott and his wife Zelda were raucous drunken hell-raisers in the Twenties, dancing on table tops, diving into public fountains, going to cocktail parties in their pajamas with Zelda likely taking even those off, getting thrown out of hotels.

However the F. Scott Fitzgerald in ‘West of Sunset’ is much more subdued.  The novel is about Fitzgerald’s final years starting with his second sojourn as a screenwriter in Hollywood in 1937.  By this time Zelda had been in and out of sanitariums and rest homes for the mentally ill for seven years.  Zelda was actually misdiagnosed with schizophrenia although today her diagnosis would most likely be bipolar disorder.

In 2013 there were three novels that told the Scott and Zelda story from Zelda’s point of view questioning whether or not Zelda was actually crazy and what or who caused her problems to begin with.  Since ‘West of Sunset’ is told from Scott’s point of view, it naturally puts him in a better light than these three other novels.  Perhaps ‘West of Sunset’ over-portrays Zelda as a poor unstable wretch.

Scott’s writing career was floundering as there was no longer much demand for his novels and stories.  He had to pay for Zelda’s expenses as well as for their daughter Scottie’s private school expenses.  Hollywood was willing to pay him $1000 a week, so he returned there.   He hated Hollywood’s team approach to writing scripts which also allowed the directors of the movie to make any script changes they wanted.  But the money was good.

Of course we meet a few famous people along the way.  Humphrey Bogart, Dorothy Parker, and Ernest Hemingway are all characters in the novel.

Scott meets up with the young gossip columnist Sheilah Graham and they develop a relationship even though he is still married to Zelda and occasionally goes back to see her.   Sheilah later becomes disgusted with Scott’s drinking binges.

Scott never could hold his liquor, and although he tries hard to keep it under control, alcohol wound up hurting his Hollywood career as well as his relationship with Sheilah.  On these drunken benders Scott had a nasty violent streak so would frequently wind up with a black eye or broken bones which would make it obvious to all that he had been drinking.

Of the four Stewart O’Nan novels that I have read, ‘West of Sunset’ is my second favorite after ‘Last Night at the Red Lobster’. ‘West of Sunset’ is a poignant and touching portrait of a man who had been on top of the world sliding inexorably downward, a mere mortal.  As the studios fire him or reduce his salary, it becomes more difficult for Scott to make financial ends meet.  The only thing that sustains Scott when he is not drinking is his strong work ethic to keep writing.

As we read along in ‘West of Sunset’, we realize we are edging closer and closer to December 21, 1940, the day F. Scott Fitzgerald died at age 44.  The only suspense is how O’Nan will handle the death scene.

 

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