Portrait of a literary great fading slowly into the sunset
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