Saturday, February 7, 2015

"West of Sunset," by Stewart O'Nan: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood

I have read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels (some several times), many of his short stories, and several books about him and about his work; he is still one of the most well known and frequently read of American writers. I have also read several books – nonfiction and fiction – about his wife Zelda. (See, for example, my 6/1/13 post on “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.”) So I was not particularly interested in yet another book about the couple. But when I saw that one of my most admired American writers, Stewart O’Nan, had just published a novel about them, “West of Sunset” (Viking, 2015), I couldn’t resist reading it. The novel focuses on the last three years of Fitzgerald’s life, some years after the peak of his success, and after the glamorous, if often self-destructive, early years in Europe. At the time of this novel, starting in 1937, he had left his wife Zelda in a kind of sanitarium for those with mental illness (readers probably know that Zelda dealt with mental illness for much of her life, although she was also a brilliant writer and artist in her own right, and it is even rumored that she co-wrote some of her husband’s fiction), and went west to Los Angeles to try to earn money as a screenwriter. He had some success but was mostly obstructed by the unpredictable whims of movie producers and others in the Hollywood world, at the same time that he was struggling with his own alcoholism, health issues, money problems, attempts to keep working on his serious fiction, and feelings of guilt and worry about Zelda, as well as about his daughter Scotty. He did have good company in fellow writers and old friends such as Dorothy Parker, and new friends and neighbors such as Humphrey Bogart, but they also contributed to the atmosphere of constant drinking that was so dangerous for him. Another important bright spot was his relationship with the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, but it was a very up-and-down relationship, with much drama and many break-ups and reconciliations. She did seem to truly love him, though, and did take care of him when his health was failing. The novel portrays Fitzgerald as very flawed (especially by the alcoholism), but a basically good and sympathetic character. He tried to do right by his family, and cared passionately about his writing, even the formulaic writing he was asked to do in Hollywood. (Interestingly, some other portrayals have been less positive, implying that Fitzgerald neglected his wife, or even worse, treated her as mentally ill when she was in fact just displaying independence and artistic originality; I don’t know the truth of it, obviously, but there does seem to be evidence of some kind of mental illness.) O’Nan is, as always, a wonderful writer (see my posts about other novels by him on 5/17/11, 1/26/12, and 3/14/13). (As a side note: this novel is the first book I have posted on with a 2015 publication date.)

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