West of Sunset is one.
Stewart O’Nan’s effortless, three-dimensional prose wrapped around the story of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s waning, troubled years in Hollywood? It seems like a perfect combination.
One of O’Nan’s epigrams is Fitzgerald’s own assertion, “There are no second acts in American lives.”
While there’s controversy over that line and precisely what Fitzgerald intended, West of Sunset certainly seems to underscore the point in spades (or cocktails).
If you want to know whether this book might be for you, I can suggest no better investment of time than to go the Authors on Tour podcast, which captures live presentations from The Tattered Cover in Denver. O’Nan reads three substantial chunks of the book at the beginning of the talk and you’ll know immediately if you are going to agree with his take on Fitzgerald’s internal space and world view.
O’Nan follows the details of Fitzgerald’s last few years—the films he was hired to write, his trips to visit Zelda, his affair with Sheilah Graham, his drinking, his attempts to not drink, and his increasingly penniless state. If you haven’t studied Fitzgerald, what better way than fiction to pick up the general flow of a writer’s career, in this case the last few years? Works for me. But it’s not Fitzgerald’s wanderings that interest O’Nan, it’s his search for dignity and a place to apply his talents. In Hollywood, he comes across a bit like a stranger in a strange land, never quite feeling comfortable in his own skin, particularly when comparing himself to one Ernest Hemingway.
“Back in his office reading Conrad, Scott was unsure was whether Ernest wanting to see him was good or not, and yet he was flattered that he’d asked after him. He liked to think he had sensitivity to and unselfish reverence for talent—or was it just a weakness for success? All his life he’d been attracted to the great, hoping, through the most diligent exertion of his sensibility, he might earn his place among them. It was harder to believe now, and yet, if he could still count Ernest as a friend and rival, perhaps he wasn’t the failure he accused himself of being. He’d never had any doubts about Ernest’s powers, only his misapplication of them, a judgment he trusted was reciprocal.”
Fitzgerald can’t quite find his footing—the teamwork aspect of writing for Hollywood (Fitzgerald worked on famous films and many obscure ones, too) and the celluloid storytelling style didn’t come naturally, though he applied himself to the task. His body starts to revolt from years of heavy drinking. Is it a recurrence of TB or “the beginning of the inevitable weakening?” World War II is starting to rumble. And, finally, Sheilah has a few surprises that keep him unsettled. He’s between women and between careers and uncertain if his talent works in the Hollywood way. He wonders what has happened and perhaps thinks through hard work he can regain his own second act (something that frequently gives him trouble when working on scripts). “He’d had a talent for happiness once, though he was young then, and lucky. But wasn’t he lucky now, again?” He isn’t sure.
Fitzgerald’s determination is palpable as O’Nan inhabits Fitzgerald’s being. It’s almost as if Fitzgerald thinks he can regain what he’s lost through the sheer number of hours he invests in fiddling with a line of dialogue.
We all know how this is all going to end, with Fitzgerald’s much-too-early death in 1940. As the pages dwindle, the ache is right there, all the unfinished business and a famous man starting to realize that there are greater forces he can’t control.
Famously, Billy Wilder once compared Fitzgerald’s work in Hollywood to “a great sculptor who is hired to do plumbing.” A novelist working in film, said Wilder, Fitzgerald “did not know how to connect the pipes so the water could flow.”
Stewart O’Nan, one great writer fictionalizing another, has no such trouble.
Previously reviewed by Stewart O’Nan: The Odds