His second act

A review of West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan

It’s become more popular of late to take historical figures and reimagine their lives with a fictional treatment. Hilary Mantel’s excellent Wolf Hall, Paula McCann’s bestseller The Paris Wife and Therese Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. F. Scott Fitzgerald is the latest to get the fictional treatment with West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan. Jazz-age era Fitzgerald is well-known, but O’Nan plumbs Fitzgerald’s final years as a struggling screenwriter in Hollywood. The result is a character study that is as wistful and tragic as Fitzgerald’s own fiction. 

Recovering from the double blow of his wife Zelda’s latest breakdown and his own struggles with alcoholism, Fitzgerald heads to Hollywood in 1937 with the hope of earning enough screenwriting to discharge his debts and restart his flagging writing career. Forty and in failing health, Fitzgerald enters a Hollywood that seems a strange shell of his former life: Dorothy Parker and Co are still holding court, but around the swimming pool rather than a table at the Algonquin, and Fitzgerald silently keeps tabs on Hemingway’s exploits and successes. The wild parties continue, but the drinking this time has a desperation to it that betrays the sense that his best days are behind him. Southern California culture sits uneasily on him: the shallow nature of the business repels but he finds freedom and inspiration far from the confines of his previous life.

O’Nan closely follows Fitzgerald’s actual experiences in Hollywood. Fitzgerald’s courtship of gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, his battles (largely futile) to see his material make it to the screen and the long, tortured attempts to hold on to a semblance of a family ultimately builds to a Gatsby-worthy conclusion. O’Nan handles the difficult task of paying homage to Fitzgerald the writer well, and while the book carries the unmistakable tone of nostalgia and lost opportunity, O’Nan still captures the determination and love of life that made both Scott and Zelda such towering figures of their generation. Fitzgerald was often quoted as saying there were no second acts in life, but O’Nan demonstrates that the final act of this great American author was no less fascinating than his youth.