Of the many memorable sentences that F. Scott Fitzgerald scribbled in his too-short lifetime, none has worked itself into American received wisdom as much as this line from his novel The Last Tycoon: “There are no second acts in American lives.”
Yet that is precisely what Fitzgerald attempted to do two years after his mental and emotional breakdown in 1935: Create a second act for his once fabulous, now failed life. Deep in debt, perpetually drunk, physically deteriorating and burdened with a schizophrenic wife stashed away in an expensive North Carolina sanitarium, he faked sobriety, talked himself into a six-month contract as an MGM screenwriter and moved to Hollywood in 1937 to resurrect the fallen career of arguably America’s greatest writer of the 20th century.
It ended badly when Fitzgerald died of a sudden heart attack in 1940 at age 44. But the promise and the peril of his last three years provide the wonderful premise for Stewart O’Nan’s sparkling new novel, West of Sunset.
And make no mistake: This is a novel, not a biography, a distinction that O’Nan fears may be lost.
“The place is real, the time is real and the people are real. All his trips back east to visit Zelda, all his work at the studios, those are all documented,” says O’Nan, who reads from his book at Diesel tonight and Vroman's tomorrow night. “What I did was fill in the gaps. The scenes and the dialogue are all mine.”
That effort to fill in the gaps extends to the novel’s letters among Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, and daughter, Scottie, which help to carry the emotionally involving narrative.
“I wrote those letters myself,” O’Nan admits, “but I studied their vocabulary and tried to make the letters true to their styles.”
Thankfully, O’Nan, a Pittsburgh-based writer with 14 successful novels under his belt, does not try to mimic Fitzgerald’s narrative style. Instead he relies on his own observational voice to inhabit Fitzgerald’s character as he shows us the slow-motion, end-stage disintegration of a great artist. He is sensitive to the pain and humiliation Fitzgerald suffered at the hands of the often illiterate overseers of the Hollywood dream machine, who viewed him as a washed-up relic of the Roaring Twenties Jazz Age, a curiosity more deserving of pity than praise.
Coming up with a great premise is only half the battle. The execution of that premise is the real test, and O’Nan pulls off a literary magic act: He artfully evokes the glamour of Hollywood’s golden age just before World War II, at the same time as he manages to demythologize names that have long since attained legend status. He gives us incisive portraits of Fitzgerald’s friends, colleagues and fellow tenants at the Garden of Allah apartments: drunk and disorderly Humphrey Bogart, macho, blustering Ernest Hemingway and witty, increasingly bitter Dorothy Parker. Throw in cameos by second-tier legends such as humorist-actor Robert Benchley, prolific producer Walter Wanger and nihilistic writer Nathanael West (who died in a car accident the day after Fitzgerald died), and this book is catnip for aficionados of prewar L.A. and Fitzgerald fetishists.
Consider O’Nan’s timeless description of 1937 L.A.:
For all its tropical beauty there was something charmless and hard about it, a vulgarity as decidedly American as the picture industry, which thrived on the constant waves of transplants eager for work, offering them nothing more substantial than sunshine. It was a city of strangers but, unlike New York, the dream L.A. sold, like any Shangri-La, was not one of surpassing achievement but unlimited ease, a state attainable only by the very rich and the dead. Half beach, half desert, the place was never meant to be habitable.
While it is ultimately a sad story, it is leavened by a great love story: Fitzgerald’s immediate love connection with Sheilah Graham. She was the least well-known of the three poison-and-praise gossip columnists who ruled the Hollywood social scene for 50 years (the others were Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper). Graham, a beautiful British orphan, changed her Jewish name and married into English high society before heading to Hollywood in the 1930s. A talented writer who eventually wrote more than a dozen books (three of them about her years with Fitzgerald), she was the least judgmental of the three gossips, more interested in news items than in forcing wayward actors and actresses to adhere to an outdated and unrealistic moral code.
There are really three stories here woven into one compelling narrative: Fitzgerald’s attempt at professional reinvention, his romantic quest to re-create with Graham the once-electric love he shared with Zelda in the 1920s and his guilt-driven obligation to support his scattered family by paying for Zelda’s hospitalization and his daughter’s education at prep school and later Vassar.
Any one of these stories by itself would be interesting. Skillfully woven together, they comprise the best Golden Age Hollywood novel to come down Sunset Boulevard in years.
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