Review: West of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan
Penguin, 2015. 289 pp. $28.
I’ve never been able to read about addictions. I have thin tolerance for masochism, an issue that cuts to the bone with me, without having to find it in the bottle, the racetrack, or various crystalline powders. I have zero tolerance for addicts who beat up their spouses, friends, or anyone else, let alone themselves, so presenting them as sympathetic fictional characters is a tough sell. Recently, I put aside The Temporary Gentleman (nominated for the Sir Walter Scott Prize), by the splendid writer Sebastian Barry, because I couldn’t imagine how anyone would waste time on the protagonist, a violent, irresponsible drunk.
However, West of Sunset calls my bluff. It’s about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last years, spent in Hollywood, where he tries to pay back his debts, stay ahead of his crippling expenses, and restore his self-respect. Even if you don’t know the story, you can guess that Hollywood is the last place to find redemption, especially for a writer who considers himself an artist. Double that if said writer destroys himself with pills washed down with alcohol.
A familiar story this is. Yet I can’t resist Fitzgerald, whom I put above any American writer of his generation. For depth, for psychological acuity, for prose–which, at its effortless best, feels like breathing–I think he has no equal from that prolific era in American letters. But it’s not that West of Sunset is a fan letter; anything but. True, O’Nan has captured Scott’s perceptions, ways of thought, and voice, and at times you can sense Amory Blaine or Nick Carraway or Dick Diver lurking just beyond the pages. But the literary frisson is only an overlay to the pain beneath, of a man who had talent to burn and, sadly, did just that with it. Where Scott once thought himself on top of the world, destined for immortality, “so much of his life now was making arrangements, and he’d never been any good at it.” Hollywood, though he doesn’t know it, is his last, valiant try:
. . . the dream L.A. sold, like any Shangri-La, was one not of surpassing achievement but unlimited ease, a state attainable by only the very rich and the dead. Half beach, half desert, the place was never meant to be habitable. . . .On the streets there was a weariness that seemed even more pronounced at night, visible through the yellow windows of burger joints and drugstores about to close, leaving their few customers nowhere to go. Inconceivably, he was one of that rootless tribe now, doomed to wander the boulevards, and again he marveled at his own fall, and at his capacity for appreciating it.
Fitzgerald’s contradictions are all in this novel. He’s a frat-boy libertine and Puritan; selfish and open-handed; roils with anger, yet tries to make peace (while sober, anyway); yearns for acceptance while believing it’s his right; and wants desperately to do the right thing, even as he surrenders to his worst nature. But West of Sunset is hardly a one-man show. O’Nan gives full life to Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, Scottie, their teenage daughter, and to Sheilah Graham, the gossip columnist with whom Fitzgerald falls in love. Through them, as well as Scott, the narrative holds astonishing tension, despite the cycle of gin and repentance, and the inevitable end.
Another pleasure is the Hollywood scene. Bogart gets a good bit of ink, and Marlene Dietrich, Ernest Hemingway, and Joan Crawford, among others, make noteworthy appearances. The gossipy studio repartee is delicious, as when Dorothy Parker remarks, of Crawford, “She’s slept with everyone at Metro except Lassie.” Charles MacArthur, in town with his actress wife, Helen Hayes, “was over at Universal adapting his last play, a task Scott imagined was like slowly poisoning your own child.”
West of Sunset is a tragic, powerful tale about a man who said yes to all the wrong things because he had trouble saying no.
Disclaimer: I obtained this book for review from the public library.