Much has been written about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s good times — the Gatsby years, the parties — but the aftermath is less examined. Stewart O’Nan’s latest novel, West of Sunset, imagines Fitzgerald’s last stages in life. Centered around his late-’30s Hollywood years, the writer see-saws between struggle and vindication while trying maintain some semblance of family.
In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, was institutionalized, and between her medical bills and their daughter Scottie’s school tuition, he’s wracked up a fair amount of debt. To keep himself afloat, he takes on a staff scriptwriter job at MGM, hoping to earn himself a few screen credits so that they keep renewing his contract. At first, he lives in a Melrose Place-type apartment complex, the Garden, where friends like Humphrey Bogart and Dorothy Parker also stay. He gets up at five, works on his own stories, then puts in his time at work, eats lunch in the studio cafeteria, and spends his evenings drinking by the pool. It’s a decent life, though considerably more subdued than it used to be with Zelda.
And then he meets Sheilah — an English gossip columnist who is both younger than him and engaged to a Baron. Still, he can’t help but like her, especially since she reminds him of a younger version of his wife.
Like those old crushes, Sheilah Graham was a phantom. He tried to empty his mind of her, but A Yank at Oxford was a romance between an American soldier and an English girl, and all day he was writing love scenes. He’d seen her face for only a moment, yet already she occupied vast tracts of his imagination. He had plans for them, landscapes and sunsets and declarations. […] But wasn’t she, being a palimpsest, a measure of how much he missed Zelda?
Like all men preoccupied with the truth, he was a wretched liar, his smallest evasion nagging at him. This one was great, and complicated. Though he knew it, because he loved her, because he hated what had happened to them, he couldn’t admit Zelda wasn’t coming back, so at the same time he held her return as a matter of faith, the fatalist in him understood that any protestations concerning the girl were empty, a traitorous balm. He was as callow now as the boy he’d been, stranded in a new place and trying to find some comfort.
Despite her engagement, and despite his willing ties to Zelda, the two begin to get to know each other. He still makes time to go back East to see his wife, whose lucidity varies, and he still tries to maintain a relationship with his grown daughter. He is chronically lonely, always looking for that next bit of work that will make him feel okay.
I know a little bit about Fitzgerald’s biography, but it is more about his early career. Because of that, I wasn’t reading West of Sunset like a fact-checker looking to “catch” Stewart O’Nan making an error. Yes, it’s interesting that this story is based on a true one, with classic movie stars popping up and writers like Hemingway giving him shit about his output, but it’s a good book apart from all that. This is still a story about restlessness and the yearning for success, and it’s about trying to find camaraderie wherever one can.
O’Nan’s writing has a lovely way of laying the scene in a precise way, without being overly reliant on adjectives. Or, if the description does become heavy, it fits. He writes with purpose beyond the Look at me; I’m writing! trap that other writers mistake for craft:
Here at the end of the continent the days were the same, the sea and sky elemental, endless, interrupted only by a ship, a plane, a wayward blimp. To pay his bills he was restaging the French Revolution as a tragic love story for Garbo. He sat at a child’s desk tucked into a drafter dormer, wandering the gardens of Versailles. The waves broke and foamed, slid back and gathered again. The neighbors’ flagpole was a sundial, its shadow angling across the patio, ticking off the afternoon. On his dresser stood a picture of himself in a sombrero and Sheilah astride a donkey in Tijuana, a birthday present. It was May, a month for picnics in the Bois. He thought they would see more of each other, like at Christmas, the two of them hiding from the world, but she was busy with her column and her radio show, her opening night galas. What was love compared to the ruthless ambition of youth? From the widow’s walk he could see the peak of Catalina, and in his weaker moments, squinting out over the water at the last of sunset, breasting a westerly breeze, he felt the chill of exile.
Fitzgerald’s health suffers, and though we can feel the end coming, it’s easy to want him to work everything out somehow. Students of his work and life know how it will end, but being fuzzy on the details adds a little bit of suspense. Still, I think the book is enjoyable enough that even the most ardent fact-checker would find something rewarding. For anyone creative and depressed, as the two often go hand-in-hand, some moments might feel all too real. West of Sunset is full of humanity and desire, whatever life may bring.
Full Disclosure: Viking sent me this book for review purposes.