In 1937, his reputation at a low ebb and his wife in an asylum, F. Scott Fitzgerald set out for the sunny shores of Hollywood to remake his fractured fortune. But as even casual students of cinema or literature know, his efforts there were futile, resulting in only one produced screenplay credit—Frank Borzage’s otherwise-forgotten Three Comrades—and a handful of uncredited contributions to forgotten or scraped projects (along with a week on Gone With The Wind). His experiences ran counter to the other masters brought in for that Barton Fink feeling: William Faulkner, for one, helped pen such classics as The Big Sleep and To Have And Have Not. It was never Fitzgerald’s writing that was the problem, but his inability to pull himself out of a self-destructive spiral of drink and guilt.
From this bleak backdrop unspools West Of Sunset, Stewart O’Nan’s sparkling and frequently delightful fictionalized take on those years. It’s a setting that’s near impossible for culture buffs to resist; for a certain subset of nerd, this is a sort of literary Avengers, collecting Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker alongside O’Nan’s delicate and sensitive portrayals of Fitzgerald and wife Zelda, to say nothing of Humphrey Bogart and a cameo by Katharine Hepburn, eating soup.
There’s a particular kind of romance connected to the glamour of old Hollywood and the “lost generation,” a fetish for art deco design and women in stringy dresses and Louise Brooks haircuts smoking cigarettes with handles. It’s the ultimate in American class—a word that applies to both elegance and wealth. There’s something endlessly enjoyable about watching the very sophisticated and very eloquent be total assholes to each other. After the latest in a series of infractions, Fitzgerald’s mistress coolly chews him out. “Stop sending me flowers,” she says. “I’m running out of vases.”
The risk of filling a story with historical figures—and this is doubly true for icons with famous personas—is how easily it can collapse under the weight of characters’ reputations, their personalities reduced to catchphrases and stereotypes. O’Nan largely avoids those pitfalls and for the most part does a more-than-passable imitation of, say, Parker’s acid tongue.
It helps that he’s writing from the third person, not trying to replicate the voice of Fitzgerald’s prose, though there are feints to the style of the period. A minor example: Zelda’s mother is described as “an indulgent old busybody whose children tended to kill themselves.” The way this remark is presented, as a stand-alone paragraph in a dialogue exchange, implies a scoff that offsets the cruelty, while the specific choices—the verb “tended”; the phrase “indulgent old busybody,” each word of which conveys something on its own while adding to the rhythm of the phrase as a whole—keep Fitzgerald’s voice in view. That kind of playfulness, where the adjectives batter up the tension before the verb rounds it off, is indicative of the kind of volubility Parker and company practiced, and it’s all over West Of Sunset.
This is not to say that O’Nan has a romanticized view of his subjects. Fitzgerald in particular comes off badly, a violent drunk prone to blackouts and regressive on women and money. He’s dismayed by the “epidemic” of women wearing slacks and disappointed to learn that a mistress did not, as he had expected from her refined manner, come from money. (Imagine the indignity of building one’s way to success.)
About that mistress: The gossip columnist Sheilah Graham was a real woman who did have an affair with Fitzgerald, but she’s the weak link here, never looming as large as the infrequently seen Zelda, and her feelings are never conveyed as sharply as the other characters’ (though she wrote a book about the affair, Beloved Infidel). To a certain extent this is inevitable. It would be difficult for anyone to compete with one of the most iconic American romances, in the same way that had Romeo lived, it’s doubtful there would be many prospects for his post-Juliet rebound.
“There are only two ways to end a love story,” Fitzgerald tells his daughter. “Happiness and heartbreak.” West Of Sunset is about his attempt to wrestle back control at the end of his story, beating against the current. O’Nan captures the tragic beauty in the flawed person Fitzgerald was and the timeless work he created. Now more icon than man in the public consciousness, the great writer is never more human than he appears here, trying to get sober and starting The Last Tycoon, a book about the movies. He’d never finish. He’d be dead in a year.