Por­trait of a lit­er­ary great fad­ing slowly into the sun­set

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes

West of Sun­set By Ste­wart O’Nan Allen & Un­win, 304pp, $29.99 “There are no sec­ond acts in Amer­i­can lives”: so runs the epi­graph to Ste­wart O’Nan’s 15th novel, a stunning ac­count of F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s fi­nal years. The quote is one of Fitzger­ald’s most fa­mous and is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally pithy and plan­gent. But in re­la­tion to Fitzger­ald’s own life it is wrong. The man who went from Jazz Age bard to crashed-and-burned ir­rel­e­vance was granted a sec­ond chance, or act, when he moved to Hol­ly­wood in 1937 and swapped fic­tion for screen­writ­ing. With tremen­dous artistry,

June 6-7, 2015 O’Nan shows in West of Sun­set how one of the finest and most tragic Amer­i­can writ­ers dis­cov­ered not only a late cre­ative lease on life but also a new love.

O’Nan wastes lit­tle time in de­pict­ing Fitzger­ald’s fall from grace. At the be­gin­ning we see him alight­ing from a train in Los An­ge­les with no one there to greet him — a marked con­trast from his first visit 20 years pre­vi­ously when he had ar­rived “tri­umphant, the golden wun­derkind and his flap­per bride, sign­ing au­to­graphs and mug­ging with Zelda for the cam­eras”. Zelda is now in a men­tal asy­lum. Fitzger­ald, aged 40 and alone, is a shadow of his for­mer glit­ter­ing self: a washed-up al­co­holic who owes money to cred­i­tors and a novel to his pub­lisher. “I’m the king of things go­ing wrong,” he de­clares.

Work takes the form of in­ject­ing life and cred­i­bil­ity into trite scripts and soon turns out to be undig­ni­fied Sisyphean toil. Just when Fitzger­ald is get­ting some­where with his fine­tun­ing, the film is shelved or he is re­as­signed to other projects, his ef­forts rewrit­ten by the next hack up on the con­veyer belt. His san­ity is saved by English gos­sip colum­nist Sheilah Gra­ham. “You’re the one en­gaged to a duke,” he tells her. “You’re the one mar­ried to a wife,” she replies. A love af­fair blooms and lasts, de­spite be­ing shaken by bomb­shells con­cern­ing Gra­ham’s past (“Like ev­ery­one in Hol­ly­wood, she wasn’t who she claimed to be”) and rocked by Fitzger­ald’s vi­o­lent drunken binges.

Sur­round­ing th­ese two leads is a cast largely made up of cameos. Fitzger­ald’s old flame (and model for many a fic­tional rich girl) Ginevra King pops up to tug at his heart again, and his daugh­ter Scot­tie spends her term break from board­ing school on hol­i­day with him. There are also star turns from on-off friend and boor­ish ri­val Ernest Hem­ing­way; Dorothy (“Dot­tie”) Parker, a co-sur­vivor of “those in­co­her­ent years in New York”; and Humphrey (“Bo­gie”) Bog­art who, de­spite be­ing given a split lip by Fitzger­ald, be­lieves The Great Gatsby to be a master­piece.

O’Nan brings in a third main char­ac­ter who be­comes some­thing of a fifth wheel. Fitzger­ald vis­its Zelda at her sana­to­rium, first to cel­e­brate their 17th wed­ding an­niver­sary and ev­ery time there­after out of a weary­ing sense of duty. He re­alises he loves only “some long-lost ver­sion of her” and yearns to re­turn to Gra­ham.

How­ever, just as Fitzger­ald plays the carer to his trou­bled wife, so too is Gra­ham nurse to her lover each time he falls off the wagon with a

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