West of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan
“He’d had a talent for happiness once, though he was young then, and lucky. But wasn’t he lucky now, again?”
Luck was in short supply during F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final years. Instead, the famous writer best known for The Great Gatsby had an abundance of misfortune and difficulties that are brilliantly rendered in West of Sunset by Pittsburgh author Stewart O’Nan.
“Despite our view of him as a literary giant and dashing Gatsby, Fitzgerald was an outsider–a poor boy from a rich neighborhood, a scholarship kid at private school, a Midwesterner in the East, an Easterner in the West,” writes O’Nan in his essay “The Inspiration Behind West of Sunset” and posted on his website. “I’d thought of him in Hollywood as a legendary figure in a legendary place, yet the more I read, the more he struck me as someone with limited resources trying to hold together a world that’s flying apart, if not gone already. Someone who keeps working and hoping, knowing it might not be enough. And I thought: that’s who you write about.”
Indeed you do.
And with his writing, O’Nan more than succeeds in capturing this aspect of Scott during these last troubled three years. At 40, Scott’s literary success is well in the past and his wife Zelda is institutionalized for psychiatric issues. When Hollywood (finally, thankfully) comes calling with work as a screenwriter, he is emotionally and financially broke, “borrowing against stories he has yet to imagine.” (Love that line!)
Nonetheless, Scott heads west in somewhat desperate hopes of making it once again in a town where everyone else’s star seems to be rising but where his is uncertain. He’d answered California’s call before. (“There were years like phantoms, like fog. Often he wondered if certain memories of his had really taken place.”) Those early Hollywood years and what, exactly, transpired that made Scott so full of self-doubt remain a bit fuzzy to the reader, but that’s all right; West of Sunset stays in 1937-1940.
As the novel progresses, Scott’s own health and emotional well-being becomes more precarious as his battle with alcoholism becomes more prominent. He’s in the midst of an on-again, off-again affair with the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who has her own demons to conquer. And when his passive-aggressive egocentric co-worker isn’t being an editorial pain in the ass, his writing career is beholden to the whimsy of the studio powers-that-be who kill any scintilla of hope and motivation (and the possibility of a credit and continued paycheck) with each cancelled movie. Money is a constant source of uncertainty, and every writer will be able to empathize with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s frustration on his stories being rejected by the popular magazines of the day – most of which adored him once upon a time.
To be sure, West of Sunset has some bright moments. The reader gets to hang out by the pool and at the studio commissary with the likes of Fitzgerald BFF’s Dorothy Parker and Humphrey Bogart – not to mention Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, George Oppenheimer and more than a few others making cameo appearances. Quite a cast of characters, this novel has. If you’re a literary and/or film bub, this one’s for you.
Dust off the Hollywood glitter, though, and there’s something universally relatable about West of Sunset. Anyone who has ever gone through a difficult professional or personal stretch of time (which would be …oh, all of us) will likely find something to identify with in the F. Scott Fitzgerald that Stewart O’Nan presents. West of Sunset is about coming to terms with real and perceived failure, the drumbeat of self-doubt and loathing that accompanies it, the quest for self-redemption, and what happens when our self-reliance runs out. (“Somewhere in this latest humiliation there was a lesson in self-reliance. He’d failed so completely that he’d become his own man again.”)
This is a 5 out of 5 stars novel. I was in love from the first three pages and I feel very confident in saying that West of Sunset – the first Stewart O’Nan book I’ve read – is likely going to be one of my favorite novels of this year.
(Are you local to the Pittsburgh area? Come hear Stewart O’Nan tomorrow (Saturday, February 7) when East End Book Exchange hosts the author for his final stop of his West of Sunset book tour. Event begins at 7 p.m.)
About Readin’at: One of the things I’ve come to love about Pittsburgh is how much this city embraces the written word and the authors who bring stories to life. We’re quite the literary town and I wanted a way to emphasize this. As a way to celebrate all things “bookish in the Burgh,” I created “READIN’AT,” an occasional feature here focused on Pittsburgh-based literary works, events, and the writers who call this awesome city home.