In 1937, with America still clawing out of the Great Depression, F. Scott Fitzgerald was in big trouble. After years of what the Irish call “too much drink,” the party was over and Scott was in poor health. To add to his travails, he was broke and saddled with supporting his mentally unstable wife Zelda, along with their teenage daughter Scotty. With few options, Fitzgerald headed to Hollywood to start anew, writing for whichever movie studio paid the most.
Stewart O’Nan’s magnificent and fascinating novel West of Sunset finally pulls back the curtain and reveals the day to day struggles of Fitzgerald’s final years. Following him back and forth to the scriptwriter’s offices at MGM, with his bottles of Coke and Hershey chocolates to sustain him through the long hours, O’Nan paints Fitzgerald as tireless, constantly frustrated with bad rewrites and trying desperately to stay sober.
The novel works so well thanks in large part to O’Nan’s exemplary knowledge of Fitzgerald’s daily life and his colorful portrayal of black-and-white B-movies and powerful studio bosses. O’Nan details Fitzgerald’s interaction with old friends like Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway, who were both still boozing it up, as well as new chums like Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy and Fitzgerald’s Hollywood paramour, the beautiful gossip columnist Sheila Graham.
Despite a constant feeling of melancholy and regret over wasted time, Fitzgerald somehow finds his bearings and works feverishly on his Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon, of which he was so proud. West of Sunset is a rich and insightful depiction of a deeply flawed talent who died tragically and far too young. Grade: A+