|F. Scott Fitzgerald 1921|
I had finished The Great Gatsby, and was looking for something else to read when I noticed West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan. It’s about the last three years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life. He did justice to the phrase live fast, die young, stay pretty. He died of heart complications at the age of 44.
O’Nan wrote the biography in a creative fiction tone. It reads smoothly like a fiction story rather than a regurgitation of facts. He draws the reader in, and keeps him hooked throughout the rest of the book.
The story begins in 1937. The United States starts to climb out of the Great Depression. Europe gallops towards another war. Fitzgerald’s career has ended. People are no longer interested in reading about partying, extravagance and the Jazz Age. They are still trying to put food on the table.
Fitzgerald's wife Zelda lived in an asylum, and his daughter Scottie attended a private school. Scott has become broke and homeless. He started working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Ernest Hemingway has returned from Spain, and Scott gets assigned to adapting one of Hemingway’s short stories to the big screen.
Unfortunately and no big surprise, Fitzgerald has a problem with alcohol. He can’t manage to stay off the gin long enough to put his life together. He worked on Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz scripts, but got fired before the projects were completed. He received no credits and no royalties. It was sad to read about his inability to defeat his demons. He would get so close, and then plummet once again.
His friends and associates continued to bail him out. They would loan him money, find him jobs, and give him cash advances against projects that he never finished. He had tremendous talent and opportunities. Even at the end he remained charismatic.
In addition to his wife and daughter, he had a long time girl friend, Sheilah Graham. She would get tired of watching his self-abuse, but she always felt sorry for him and would come back. He had a housekeeper and a secretary that by the end he couldn’t pay, but they also adored him and stuck with him.
It’s a sad story, but O’Nan manages to keep it light and entertaining. I loved this paragraph, and I have to share. It’s Christmas, Sheilah and Scott go tree shopping.
“Here they drove to a used-car lot on Pico and chose from a few drooping specimens lined up against the fence like prisoners while a loud speaker hectored them with tinny carols. The salesman charged him an extra fifty cents to wrap the tree in burlap and lash it to the roof of the Ford, and then, on Ocean Boulevard, as Scott braked for a light, it slipped its bonds, sailed free like a torpedo or a body prepared for burial at sea, banged off the hood and continued into the intersection where it finally came to a stop.”
I enjoyed the book despite its sad topic. O’Nan wrote descriptive narrative that treated Scott with respect, and also made the reader feel like they were living the experience with the cast.