Book review: imagining F. Scott Fitzgerald’s twilight years
American novelist Stewart O'Nan chronicles Fitzgerald's desperate end, when his jazz age fame was a distant memory, his wife was in a sanatorium and his alcoholism had ruined his health
Recent years have seen a spate of fictional takes on the life of F Scott Fitzgerald and his troubled wife, Zelda. West of Sunset, by American heavyweight writer Stewart O’Nan, deals with Fitzgerald’s final years – spent as a struggling Hollywood screenwriter, fallen from his jazz age fame.
It opens with two quotations, the first of which is from Fitzgerald’s notes for his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon: “There are no second acts in American lives.” As Fitzgerald fans know, that famous line initially appeared in a different form. “I had once thought there were no second acts in American lives,” the writer remarked in an earlier essay, before exploring how life was always transforming. O’Nan imagines the last three years of Fitzgerald’s life, from 1937 to 1940, less as a second act than an intermission; a moment of uncertainty, in which the familiar scenery disappeared. West of Sunset captures the sadness of such moments, but also their promise: as its second epigraph states: “Nothing was impossible – everything was just beginning.”
The story starts with a cash-strapped Scott leaving North Carolina – where Zelda is confined to a sanatorium – for Hollywood, an institution with its own constraints. He is transferred from one ill-fated script to the next – no longer the “golden wunderkind” who wrote Gatsby, but a “helpless” hack, harried by bosses and bingeing on gin.
Contrasting Fitzgerald’s decline with the film industry’s golden age, O’Nan conveys the writer’s lifelong sense of estrangement: “A poor boy from a rich neighbourhood, a midwesterner in the east, an easterner out west”, he was always a “wanderer far from home”. Throughout the book, Scott’s life is in flux; ironically, one of his few fixed landmarks is Zelda. Adrift in the world, the two are locked into a pattern they can’t escape: their repeatedly broken promise that “she would be sane. He would be sober.”
Change is the only constant in West of Sunset: from Scott’s short-lived scripts to the stars’ ageing faces, the whole world seems fated to fade away. Some of O’Nan’s most suggestive passages conjure the feeling of freefall that can accompany uncontrollable change. Scott’s drunken blackouts are represented by sudden accelerations of narrative pace. In one sentence he’s ordering a double gin; in the next he’s “sprawled on someone’s wet lawn”. Like him, we’re left struggling to fill in the blanks. When Scott’s heart finally stops, we watch him fall to the floor, losing control once again. Vitally though, O’Nan then imagines his final thought, a flourish of hope in a forsaken place. Falling “blindly” into the darkness, Scott still protests “but I’m not done”.
West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan (Allen & Unwin)