In Stewart O'Nan's latest, West of Sunset (Penguin Books), F. Scott Fitzgerald springs to life. This is no biography, but a fictionalization of the last three years of Fitzgerald's life when, with his wife Zelda in an institution in North Carolina, he travels west to Hollywood as a writer-for-hire in the motion picture studios. "Over the years he'd watched Hollywood devour his friends from back East, sapping their nobler ambitions as it filled their pockets," O'Nan writes.
Many of these friends fill the pages as ancillary characters — Ernest Hemingway; Dorothy Parker and her husband, the writer Alan Campbell; Humphrey Bogart and his wife, actress Mayo Methot; and the Fitzgeralds' daughter, Scottie, among others.
Among those others is Sheilah Graham, a (real-life) one-time actress and current gossip columnist at the time with whom Fitzgerald falls in love. Through their relationship, we see Fitzgerald, who's made a life across time zones and borders, as a man at odds with himself. "He was a poor boy from a rich neighborhood, a scholarship kid at boarding school, a Midwesterner in the East, an easterner out West. If he'd ever belonged anywhere, those places were gone, the happiness he recalled there as fleeting as the seasons."
He's still in love with Zelda, their whirlwind marriage having been the stuff of legend and fodder for newspapers and newsreels. His career, like Hemingway's, was propelled as much by stories of their escapades as by the work itself. But this is a different Fitzgerald than the lore, as he struggles with leaving Zelda even as his bank account dwindles, and he's faced with paying her bills, Scottie's college tuition, and pulling himself out of debt. (At his lowest, the writer who gave us Gatsby receives a royalty check from Scribner's for $1.43.) Once in Hollywood, he's torn between his integrity as a writer of renown and becoming just another hack for the studio factory. And, as his relationship with Graham takes hold, he's faced with her ultimatum of giving up the gin he holds so dear.
The Fitzgerald of 1937 becomes the antithesis of the Fitzgerald we all now know and love. He's pushed into sobriety (as he should be, the free-flowing booze having damaged his body beyond repair) and into a 9-to-5, workaday life. "In all his dealings with Hollywood save one, the collaborative process was a case of the narrowest majority agreeing on the broadest effects to please the widest audience." He begins his last novel, The Last Tycoon (published posthumously in 1941), in earnest after being let go from a studio contract for drinking, giving him time to delve fictionally into the world from which he'd been ousted. "Somewhere in his latest humiliation there was a lesson in self-reliance. He'd failed so completely that he'd become his own man again."
That's not the Fitzgerald we want, yet that's the Fitzgerald O'Nan masterfully brings to life, a life that is spiraling downward as we watch. The one hope during his demise is Graham, who truly loves Fitzgerald, yet is wise enough to push him away when he's at his worst. "She compared her weakness for him to a sickness," O'Nan writes, and Graham herself tells Fitzgerald, "I didn't pull myself out of the gutter to waste my life on you."
What he hopes to recapture with her is the careless living and camaraderie he'd had in the earliest days with Zelda. These two eras are juxtaposed against trips back East to visit his wife, take her on trips, and check in on her health. During these visits he feels guilty about his feelings for Graham while he hopes only the best for Zelda. "He'd had a talent for happiness once, though he was young then, and lucky ... When he was with [Graham] like this, he could forget the past. No one else had that power, and yet in the end he feared he would disappoint her."
O'Nan is the author of 14 previous novels, and his next, City of Secrets, a moral thriller set in Jerusalem after World War II, will be published in April. In conjunction with the Booksellers at Laurelwood, he will be at story booth in Crosstown Arts, on Tuesday, January 12th.