On West of Sunset
Every time I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished last novel, The Last Tycoon, I want to slap him. I want to say: why, why, why couldn’t you keep it together long enough to finish the book? At least to leave more than these fragmented scenes draped gauzily around an enigmatic central character, Monroe Stahr. Stewart O’Nan’s new novel, West of Sunset, [Viking, 2015] provides an answer to that frustrating question.
Taking as its core, the last few years of Fitzgerald’s life in Hollywood before his death in December, 1940, West of Sunset paints a sad, unforgettable portrait of the artist as a self-destroying, raging alcoholic. It portrays his working life, and the women who loved him: his mistress, Sheilah Graham, his daughter, Scottie, his mad, estranged wife, Zelda, his accommodating young secretary, Frances Kroll, as well as friends like Dorothy Parker. (Parker, naturally, has all the good lines in the book.) The novel makes scenic Fitzgerald’s letters which have been published and republished in collections and in biographies. There, these episodes might merit a paragraph or a page; here they come to life.
Chief among these episodes is the Dartmouth Winter Carnival in 1938 where FSF went with young Budd Schulberg, a Dartmouth alum, son of one of Hollywood’s most powerful men. Ostensibly the two went to collect “atmosphere” for a frothy movie they were writing about collegiate antics. FSF’s collegiate antic days were long behind him. O’Nan makes scenically vivid this pivotal moment: the bitter New England cold (FSF having left his coat on the train) the colossal intake of alcohol, the freezing sleeping arrangements (their reservation had been lost, and the two were stuck in an unheated attic), the whole mad, crash-and-burn which left FSF in a New York hospital. Schulberg was a young man whose happy mantra, “Just one more,”[drink] made no inroads on either his health or his future, but “Just one more” was disastrous for FSF. His reputation following this incident made him more or less un-hireable. Only then did he set to serious work on The Last Tycoon.
Within the steadily encroaching limits of alcoholism and ill health, the FSF in West of Sunset wanted to work, did work, even diligently, at various studios, slaved away on dialogue and story lines, all of which were snatched from him, and either trashed, or handed on to other writers. FSF and his ilk (and there were many) swung like monkeys from tree to tree, from one brief contract to another, hoping for a screen credit, hoping to eke out a living, if not a life. For FSF the money paid for these contracts diminished steadily; the contracts themselves dried up.
O’Nan’s spotlight on FSF’s money troubles makes plain, and pathetic the author’s constant scrabbling and borrowing that soured many of his closest relationships. Rendering these woes as they actually affected FSF’s life and work, again, makes scenically vivid what a biography can only allude to if there is a footnote. Though West of Sunset is not exactly A Day in the Life, the novel has that feel of everyday life, the grit and dander, the woes and meager wages, the uncertainties. FSF’s stories were declined by magazines that had once supported him on a great buoyant tide of money and acclaim. His books were out of print. The repeated blows to his pride in his work (and the blows administered by the studios as well) must surely have exacerbated the drinking, his diet of chocolate bars and Cokes, burning the candle at both ends.
For this reader, FSF’s lover, Sheilah Graham, never achieved narrative girth; she seemed a swooping, and (understandably) irritated angel to FSF. His strained relationships with Zelda and her family were given dynamic portrayal, and his affection for his daughter made plain and poignant.
More vivid than these women, however was the ghost of Monroe Stahr. In this novel with FSF himself as a character, the unrealized Stahr beckons FSF, entreats him to write. One wishes the character had been more firm with the author.