What a sad story. A fictionalized tale of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last years, it is even sadder than that author’s fiction. Stewart O’Nan is masterful at writing about sad, tortured, sometimes broken people.
In an interview on the Other People podcast, he says he wanted to get inside the facts presented in Fitzgerald biographies and create the actual incidents the man lived through in those last years of his life, so of course it had to be a novel.
We read about the writer’s visits with his wife Zelda, who by then is institutionalized and undergoing the barbaric treatments used in the 1930s: electric shock, insulin shock, etc. Sometimes he takes Zelda and their daughter Scottie, by then in boarding school, on week long vacations. Though their love and marriage and family are basically a shambles, they all try desperately and awkwardly but unsuccessfully to be there for each other. Heartbreaking.
But Scott, as he is called in the novel, is the one who must pay for it all. His career as a novelist is also over, his royalties a mere pittance, so he takes a job in Hollywood as a screenwriter in the studio system. The pay is enormous ($1000 a week), especially for the times. The indignities match the pay in their enormity. Scott is an alcoholic though he manages to stay off the booze long enough to write in a tiny office five days a week from nine to six. But there are binges.
Still longing for romance, he falls in love with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. Still hoping for another bestseller, he begins a novel, The Last Tycoon. It is all a race against disaster and annihilation; a race he loses at the age of 46.
Though O’Nan has never lived in Los Angeles, he captures the city and Hollywood at the end of the 1930s. He includes several celebrities in the story: Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Humphrey Bogart and more in their interactions with Fitzgerald.
This novel has the zing of a Fitzgerald creation layered over the crushing despair of a man who was once the highest paid and most famous writer in America. From the little I have read about Scott and Zelda, I had formed the opinion that Fitzgerald was a despicable husband who crushed Zelda’s creativity and free spirit. In West of Sunset, he comes across as a man burdened with a mentally ill wife. He loved her once, the magic is so over, but he tries to do right by her and Scottie.
The truth? Who knows for sure. The novel is possibly as close to Fitzgerald’s truth as we will get.