Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"West of Sunset" by Stewart O'Nan

I didn't think it was possible for me to feel sorrier for F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I was wrong.  This jewel of a novel depicts his last few years, as he struggles toward oblivion in Hollywood, working on a string of mediocre scripts for unappreciative filmmakers.  I've never read a lengthy biography of Fitzgerald, so I don't know how many details here are pulled from life and how many are added by O'Nan -- this is a novel, after all, not a strict biography.  I would assume that the bones are real, and O'Nan has simply given them flesh and motion.

The bones, then, are these:  The Great Depression is on, and Scott's beloved wife, Zelda, is descending into hereditary madness.  She's living at a mental hospital near Asheville, NC (not far from the Biltmore, if you've heard of that).  Their daughter, Scottie, is off at prep school.  Scott himself moves to Hollywood to earn money by writing screenplays.  He's trying to pay for Zelda's care and Scottie's schooling, plus pay off debts he incurred with the Roaring Twenties lifestyle he and Zelda were famous for.  In Hollywood, he meets a younger woman, a society columnist, and has a tempestuous affair with her.  He lives next to Humphrey Bogart for a while, and I think the scenes with Bogie were my favorites, as O'Nan captured his speech rhythms beautifully.  Anyway, Scott works on his last novel and tries to make a go of screenwriting, and eventually dies a dissipated, middle-aged shadow of his youthful self.

O'Nan takes this bleak story and crafts it into a cautionary tale of what happens when talent gets wasted and opportunities get squandered.  But more than that, he makes all the major characters heartbreakingly sympathetic.  Scott, Zelda, Scottie, even the new girlfriend Sheila -- I cared about all of them by the end, and didn't want the looming tragedy of Scott's death to befall them.

But then, when Scott did die, it wasn't depressing at all.  His death felt inevitable, but not tragic.  Not quite the emotional outcome I was expecting.  Huh.

Obviously, there's a lot of unsavory stuff going on in this novel.  Marital infidelity and alcoholism are the biggies, and the story as a whole is not what I'd term "nice."  There's very little bad language, which surprised me.  Oh, and of course Ernest Hemingway is here, angry and bitter and sometimes downright mean.  Nothing unexpected, I must admit.  I love the way both Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote, but they themselves were less than admirable people.

Particularly Good Bits:

There were years like phantoms, like fog.  Often he wondered if certain memories of his had really taken place (p. 28).

He was a writer -- all he wanted from this world were the makings of another truer to his heart (p. 53).

He was over at Universal, adapting his last play, a task Scott imagined was like slowly poisoning your own child (p. 74).

If he'd ever belonged anywhere, those places were long gone, the happiness he recalled there as fleeting as the seasons (p. 208).

For years her dabbling had struck him as slapdash and glib, lacking the discipline of the professional.  Now he envied her simple love of creation.  He'd written too much for money (p. 247).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  R for adult dialog and sexual situations.

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