West of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan

West of Sunset

The curse of early success: we may say we’re willing to risk it, but there are certainly plenty of cautionary tales. The prime example may be the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The immense success of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, made him the golden boy of the 1920s. Along with his wife, Zelda, Fitzgerald danced and drank and partied up a storm.

The two were known for crazy, reckless stunts. But all of those drunken escapades left little time for writing. For a while, he kept going by selling stories to magazines, but that market almost completely dried up after the economy crashed in 1929. His other novels, including The Great Gatsby, didn’t sell well at the time.

This novel starts in 1937 with Scott holed up in a rundown hotel near the North Carolina asylum where Zelda resides. I’ve read and speculated a lot about Zelda’s supposed schizophrenia–there have been too many women diagnosed as insane for nothing more than independent thinking–but O’Nan doesn’t go there. His Zelda sees visions of Michael the Archangel and alternates periods of clarity with violent attacks on those around her.

O’Nan doesn’t let her husband off the hook either. Scott cannot escape from his alcoholism; worse than that, he is a mean drunk.

Scott can’t afford Zelda’s hospital fees, so, like many other writers at the time like his friend Dorothy Parker, he gives in and moves to Hollywood to write for MGM. However, the film work isn’t steady, and Zelda is not well enough to leave the hospital where the bills continue to mount. Worry about money percolates throughout this novel of Fitzgerald’s final three years.

Then at a party he sees a woman who reminds him so much of Zelda that he thinks his friends are playing a trick on him. Sheilah Graham is a gossip columnist, engaged to an English aristocrat. The portrait of her that eventually emerges helps me finally understand why she would fall for his faded charms.

O’Nan is a captivating writer, long one of my favorites. I first encountered his writing when I casually picked up a book a friend had left on a table, the bookmark clear proof that he hadn’t finished it. Yet, I’m ashamed to say that I was so mesmerized by the first page that I stole the book and only returned it to my mystified friend the next day, confessing my disgraceful crime.

Though I was already familiar with the story of those years from biographies, memoirs, and other research, O’Nan brings the writer and his friends to life. It’s all here: parties with Bogart and other stars, trial reunions with Zelda, attempts at normalcy for visits by daughter Scottie, drunken fights, determined “cures”. O’Nan walks a delicate tightrope, never excusing Scott’s excesses, but convincingly showing us the world from Scott’s point of view. After every failure, he returns to writing, trying to earn the necessary money, and drinking only cola.

Sometimes I wonder if his success did have much to do with the disastrous arc of his 44 years. His one-time friend, Hemingway, blamed Zelda for Scott’s drinking and reckless behavior However, Scott’s alcoholism started before that, when he was in college. Others have blamed the times: for many people Scott and Zelda epitomized the Jazz Age. I wonder, though, if his appetite for a wild and hedonistic life would have carried him to the same end no matter when he’d been born.

What can we know of another person? A good writer helps unravel the mystery. Read O’Nan’s absorbing novel, even if you think you already know the story.

What did you think of The Great Gatsby the first time you read it?

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