It’s easy to forget that by the time he was 41, F. Scott Fitzgerald was washed up. His books were out of print, magazines weren’t interested in his stories and his monthly royalties were down to pocket change. In 1937, he went to Hollywood, where he struggled to make a living writing screenplays, barely staying one step ahead of his creditors. It is these lean years that Stewart O’Nan examines in his brilliant biographical novel West of Sunset.
When Fitzgerald arrived in Hollywood, his wife, Zelda, was in a mental hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, and their daughter, Scottie, was lodged in an East Coast boarding school. Overcome with guilt and plagued by the alcohol addiction that would lead to a fatal heart attack just three years later, Fitzgerald worked as a studio screenwriter for projects both notable (Gone with the Wind) and forgotten (A Yank at Oxford), surrounded by colleagues such as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Humphrey Bogart. At the same time, he met and fell in love with Sheilah Graham, a British gossip columnist with her own complicated past. Their relationship sustained him and also made it possible for him to work on his final novel, The Last Tycoon. But he still returned east regularly to see Zelda or take her on small trips—once, he even brought her to her family’s home in Alabama for a trial stay.
O’Nan has always found the drama inherent in hard work (Last Night at the Lobster) and in the nuances of personal relationships (Emily, Alone), and West of Sunset combines both. As glamorous a subject as Hollywood in the 1930s is, the small moments work best in this poignant novel: the guilt Fitzgerald feels over not spending his holidays with his wife and daughter; the awkward friendship between Scottie and Sheilah; and the struggles that Fitzgerald has alone with his typewriter. O’Nan handles these situations with the utmost sympathy. He paints a deeply personal portrait of a man on his last legs—financially, creatively and physically—and as painful as the subject matter is, it is also a pleasure to read. West of Sunset is truly one great writer exploring the life and work of another.