F. Scott Fitzgerald, gone almost 75 years, is possibly more vital to our contemporary zeitgeist than he was to his own. Popular images of him — as irrepressible flapper, as writer who both lived and captured the dizzying heights of 1920s excess, as florid, sensitive antidote to the brusque and macho Hemingway, as husband to wild Zelda — could be likened to a sort of cultural Whac-A-Mole. One is never quick enough, nimble enough to catch the man, despite that he is installed in every high school English class through its assigned journey into Jay Gatsby’s West Egg world.
Yet lurking at the blurred periphery of this mythic persona lurks the sad and unseemly business of Fitzgerald’s last years, a sometimes tragic, out-of-limelight, death spiral that was hardly the trajectory of a celebrated artist cut short in spectacular ascent. He died out of work, out of money, mostly out of love, living in a rundown apartment complex in Hollywood, and at an age — 44 — that these days counts as late adolescence.
How did this happen? How, in Fitzgerald’s own words, did he crack up? And why has no one dramatically gone to this fertile place before? Thankfully, in his 15th novel, “West of Sunset,” Stewart O’Nan has inserted himself into this fecund mess and rather shockingly — at least for this formerly historical-fiction-phobic reviewer — exits with a mesmerizing and haunting novel of his own.
When the book opens, Fitzgerald is a long way from the success of “Gatsby” and flat broke, “borrowing against stories he’d yet to imagine.” Holed up in an old resort in the Smoky Mountains near Zelda’s asylum, he has run out of options. And so, in the spirit of the 20th-century Gold Rush, he moves to Hollywood and a screenwriting gig with MGM at $1,000 a week. The work is an altogether different challenge than writing fiction; suffice it to say, he does not take to it naturally.
Complicating matters, he falls in dizzying love even as he attempts, via both visits and cold cash, to support a young daughter and unwell wife left behind on the East Coast. Money worries, job worries, parenting worries, love worries MOUNT. Very little is right in the writer’s shriveling life. And pulsing, beckoning beneath it all: the siren song of drink, that great lover that seduced the likes of Hemingway and Faulkner.
Aesthetically, things begin shakily in “West of Sunset.” Safe to say, a great deal is required artistically for a reader to buy into a biographical novel written from the vantage of one long dead and long famous. Then when well-known figures pop up regularly as characters — Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, Joan Crawford, Shirley Temple, and on and on — the believability bar gets set scarily high. Another challenge emerges — that much of the beginning of “West of Sunset’’ is dialogue rich, with O’Nan gunning for the sort of witty repartee that populated movies of that time. As Zelda says to Fitzgerald, “Dodo, really, you needn’t have.”
Historical fiction is hard to pull off. For the author, a great deal must be managed simultaneously to get a reader believing or the book gets snapped shut fast. For in such an fictional endeavor, all is imagined, nothing is known first-hand as it would be in a piece set in the present. The critic James Wood addressed this prejudice when he said in the journal n + 1, “I think the novel should deal with current reality; I have no time for historical fiction, seeing it as merely science fiction facing backwards.”
And yet, in the third chapter of “West of Sunset,” the jarring sensation that one is watching an author fake the antic rhythms of an antic time — along with the sense that the writer is having a good deal more fun writing this than you are reading it — ebbs away. The writing becomes so good, so sure-footed, so pinpoint and observant and evocative, that prejudice releases its grip. O’Nan’s prodigious power as a novelist asserts itself, which is to say you forget utterly that he’s behind the curtain and pulling a dazzling number of strings.
For example, when Fitzgerald dances reluctantly with Dorothy Parker at a makeshift party: “She was small, and light in his arms. They’d danced before, in New York, at all-night parties that topped the next morning’s gossip columns. They’d been young then, trouble. He remembered her upturned face, her chin tipped slightly away to reveal a fetching length of neck. Despite her solidarity with the peasants, she was wearing diamond studs, and, as if she’d been hiding them, he was surprised to find she had tiny, perfect ears. He flung her out and reeled her back in.” The moment is so absorbing and precise, so bathed in rich detail, you forget you’re reading about two known figures.
The trick is really no trick at all. The strings O’Nan pulls so deftly are really the mark of a consummate pro, along the lines of Fitzgerald himself. We get atmospheric attention to the physical world, whether it’s the outskirts of LA or a flagging Florida resort or Zelda Fitzgerald trying hopelessly to hide her mental deterioration. We get tension-spiked, unpredictable scenes. Above all, O’Nan delivers — whole-body — the sensation that you’re deep inside a living, breathing, suffering consciousness — never mind the fame or notoriety — of someone who is fundamentally challenged by many of the things we fallible, anonymous mortals are challenged by now, in the early 21st century, and back then, and possibly always.
“West of Sunset” dramatizes (never melo-dramatizes) Fitzgerald falling, and falling hard, in love with the gossip columnist Sheila Graham, even as Zelda molders in a psychiatric facility and their daughter, Scottie, struggles as the ward of his New York agent. The shame, guilt, and thrill of it likely will have readers recalling their own great loves. The novel pins down Fitzgerald’s behind-the-scenes struggles to make it as a screenwriter in late 1930s Hollywood, including that impressive cast of players both known and not. It also delves into the visceral temptations of booze and is witness to a body falling apart. Subtle and moving depictions of both the minute and the large surface on most every page, whether it is the hunger for or fear of sex, the novelty of air and train travel in that era, the enduring lure of solitude, the equal allure of company.
Another triumph of this novel surfaces in O’Nan’s wily insinuation into Fitzgerald’s creative life, how it breathes through his everyday existence. Movingly and believably, the manner in which a writer works — thinks, processes, assimilates, envies — is given life. And that is what ultimately makes this book so special. It gives gritty, textured life to what has otherwise been a burnished statue of unknowability. As you travel through this book you come to forget that you’re traversing a science fiction faced backward and find yourself instead teetering along a fault line of now.
Ted Weesner, Jr. teaches at Tufts University and The School of the Museum of Fine Arts.