‘West of Sunset’: re-imagining F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final years
Stewart O’Nan’s new novel “West of Sunset” is based on the last years of the life of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, years of struggle amid the glitz of the Hollywood studio system. O’Nan appears in Seattle Jan. 30 at Ravenna Third Place Books and the Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “West of Sunset” will appear at these area locations:
•At 1 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30, at The Pub@Third Place Books Ravenna, 6504 20th Ave. N.E.(206-525-2347, thirdplacebooks.com
This is a catered luncheon with the author. Tickets are $40 and include O’Nan’s book and lunch.
He will read at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books, 1521 10th Ave. Free (206 624-6600, elliottbaybook.com).
“West of Sunset”
by Stewart O’Nan
Viking, 304 pp., $27.95
With “West of Sunset,” one brilliant American novelist has taken on another. The first is a gifted chronicler of (among other things) modern everyday life, the second a gifted chronicler of (among other things) a glamorous world gone by.
The latter: F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose glittering prose and tricky private life have made him an emblem of the jazzy Twenties. Everyone knows about that Fitzgerald; fewer know about the aftermath, the last decade of his life. In his new novel, O’Nan focuses on these years of struggle.
In the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald’s books (especially “The Great Gatsby”) made him arguably the most famous writer in America. Fitzgerald and Zelda, his impetuous and stylish wife, were dazzling celebrities.
But now it’s 1937, and the writer is trying hard not to be a washout. He’s drinking and popping amphetamines. He’s working on what will become his final novel, “The Last Tycoon,” but can’t get traction. Zelda, always unstable, is institutionalized after a psychotic break. Broke, Fitzgerald agrees to journey to Hollywood for a job punching up other writers’ junky screenplays.
In Hollywood, Fitzgerald’s life is a dizzying mix. The money is fine but sporadic. It’s the golden age of the studio system, and Fitzgerald is pals with people like Humphrey Bogart and Marlene Dietrich, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley — in the case of Parker and Benchley, two other gifted writers shackled by the movie industry’s velvet handcuffs. And he’s deep into a messy affair with a brash gossip columnist, Sheilah Graham.
But Fitzgerald’s close to drowning. He’s trying to keep his family together — he despairs about Zelda and wants to do right by their college-age daughter, Scottie. He’s perplexed by his ambiguous love affair. He’s living in a lonely cottage far from lively Hollywood. And he agonizes over retaining some dignity as a writer despite his humiliating dependence on hackwork.
“West of Sunset” is deeply researched, but the book wears it lightly — true events and real-life people are seamlessly woven into O’Nan’s imagined world. And the author’s prose, as always, is simple but eloquent — somehow, magically, he makes it look easy. Figures like Bogart and Fitzgerald’s friend/foe Ernest Hemingway are fully realized, not just characters used for perfunctory name-dropping.
Best of all, though, is O’Nan’s main character. “West of Sunset” is a big-hearted and fascinating look at this complex man — a troubled genius who was half inside a celebrity’s glamorous life and, poignantly, half outside it.
Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.