In 1937 F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s days as a successful novelist synonymous with the glamour of the roaring 20s were lost to the past. He was broke and in poor health, his wife Zelda was in a psychiatric institution, and his daughter, Scottie, was in a very expensive boarding school. When he was offered a lucrative contract by MGM studios, he decamped to Hollywood along with many of his New York contemporaries including Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, forming a commune in the famous Garden of Allah Hotel.
West of Sunset is Stewart O’Nan‘s imagining of this period in Fitzgerald’s life, and it’s well researched and a compelling read, recounting his desperation, loneliness and financial stress, and his constant struggle with alcohol; good days when he would abstain and instead drink numerous Cokes, and the inevitability of a bender, starting with a double gin and tonic and ending with a blackout.
It also depicts his relationship with Sheilah Graham, who was as reserved and controlled as Zelda was hedonistic and abandoned. Sheilah was much younger than Fitzgerald, an ambitious independent gossip-columnist who entered into a relationship with him despite the fact that he was still married to Zelda. No matter Fitzgerald’s attraction to Sheilah, he had an inescapable bond with Zelda. In a letter to a friend dated in 1920 he said that he ‘fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self-respect…Zelda’s the only God I have left now’.
Fitzgerald died at age forty-four from a heart condition, presumably exacerbated by his lifelong love of partying and his struggle with alcohol. His observation that ‘There are no second acts in American lives’ was eerily prescient. When he died many of his books were out of print and there were no signs that he would become one of the most influential American authors of the 20th century.
A novel written from Fitzgerald’s point of view will of course draw comparisons with his own prose, and as he was a rare talent this is where the risk is for the author. O’Nan’s writing is lyrical and emotionally complex as befits the subject. I wished that I had read something of O’Nan’s before this, so that I would have a better understanding of his work and could place West of Sunset in a proper context, but it’s a great introduction to O’Nan and I’m interest to read more.
Here’s an interview with the author which is illuminating and interesting, and which thankfully doesn’t give too much away so you can watch it without spoiling your enjoyment of West of Sunset.