West of Sunset

By Stewart O’Nan

(Penguin Publishing Group, $27.95, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Stewart O’Nan, who was born in Pittsburgh and after living in other parts of the country, including Avon, he has returned there. O’Nan studied for a career in aerospace engineering before realizing his true calling was writing. He is the author of two nonfiction books and 16 novels, with a 17th forthcoming in April, 2016. His nonfiction account of Hartford’s tragic catastrophe, The Circus Fire (2000), is set here (of course) as are two of his novels, The Night Country and Last Night at the Lobster. With his friend, Stephen King, O’Nan co-wrote Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season. He has been selected by Granta magazine as one of America’s Best Young Novelists.

What is this book about?

West of Sunset is a historical, biographical novel about the last years of the great and greatly troubled American author, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Once hailed as the Jazz Age genius who wrote the classic The Great Gatsby and other important novels, by 1937 Fitzgerald had a severe drinking problem, health issues, a broken marriage to Zelda, who was institutionalized in an asylum and major money difficulties. Trying to resurrect his career by doing screenwriting in Hollywood, he falls in love with gossip queen Sheilah Graham, begins but never finishes his possible masterpiece The Last Tycoon and unsuccessfully tries to revive his relationship with Zelda and their daughter Scottie.  He memorably wrote in Tycoon, “there are no second acts in American lives,” but it seems there are, although Fitzgerald’s second act was a sad one. West of Sunset is set during his last three years – he died of a heart attack in 1940 – with flashbacks to his earlier glory days and cameos by famous American actors and writers of the time.

Why you’ll like it:

O’Nan is known for his deep empathy for his characters and a wizardly ability to create believable dialogue. Many of his novels involve people trying to overcome bad luck and worse decisions, and Fitzgerald’s life fits right into this pattern. O’Nan’s stories can wound your heart without ever going over the top, and this novel, while a departure from his purely fictional early work, will cause you to ponder whether the very once-rich and very once-famous are really all that different from you and me.

What others are saying:

“Fitzgerald’s orbit of literary fame and the Golden Age of Hollywood is brought vividly to life through the novel’s romantic cast of characters, from Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway to Humphrey Bogart. A sympathetic and deeply personal portrait of a flawed man who never gave up in the end, even as his every wish and hope seemed thwarted, West of Sunset confirms O’Nan as “possibly our best working novelist,” says Salon.

An Amazon Best Book of the Month review says:  “When an ambitious writer hops onto a high wire and strides across with grace, it’s a wonderful thing to behold. And I don’t mean this as hyperbole. Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset, his glimmering fictional biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s troubled years in Hollywood, is simply one of the best books I’ve read in many months. In some ways, this is a portrait of the artist as an aging man. We see Fitzgerald, “like an athlete,” awake each day at 5 to write, then toil through long hours at “the Iron Lung,” MGM’s catty screenwriters’ wing, then scratch out a few more words at night (which would turn into his unfinished final novel, The Last Tycoon). “When he was working, it worked,” O’Nan tells us. “It was when he stopped that the world returned, and his problems with it…” In truth, not a whole lot happens. Fitzgerald pops his pills, visits Zelda and Scottie back East, has a messy yet loving affair, and occasionally gets stupid drunk. We’re treated to sassy walk-ons by Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and Humphrey Bogart. But part of the quiet, somber and entrancing appeal is how fully we become absorbed by Fitzgerald’s fight for relevance, or at least a few bucks. Ultimately, it’s quite heartbreaking to see the legendary creator of Gatsby cling to his literary dignity, his reputation and sanity slipping from his grasp, an outsider to the end.”

“Just as O’Nan succeeded in drawing readers inside the heads of such ordinary people as the elderly widow Emily in Emily, Alone, or Manny DeLeon, the hapless chain-restaurant manager in Last Night at the Lobster, he inhabits Fitzgerald’s very being and authentically depicts the writer’s fluctuating mind-sets during the final years of his life…an intimate portrayal of a flawed man who never gave up,” says The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Library Journal says: “Prolific O’Nan explores F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final years, when he worked unhappily as a Hollywood screenwriter. The novelist is on the skids after the publication of “The Crack-Up,” his mournful, self-deprecating essay that drew scathing reviews and may have ruined his career. His frustrations with the superficialities of Hollywood and autocratic studio heads planted the seeds for his uncompleted work, The Last Tycoon. We get zinging repartee from the likes of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Humphrey Bogart, but on the whole this novel is overlaid with sadness. VERDICT O’Nan taps into primary-source material on Fitzgerald to craft a realistic piece of historical fiction, inverting incidents from Sheilah Graham’s 1957 tell-all Beloved Infidel to Fitzgerald’s point of view and adopting the despairing tone of “The Crack-Up.” Fitzgerald comes across as a haunting, multifaceted, sympathetic character whose Midwestern morality leaves him duty-bound to daughter Scottie and his institutionalized wife, Zelda, even as he begins his affair with Graham (which is chastely described). The slide into drugs, alcoholism, and the heart disease that shortened his life is tragic to behold; Fitzgerald fans will mourn his loss all over again.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “In his final, booze-addled years, F. Scott Fitzgerald tries his hand at Hollywood screenwriting . . while his troubled wife, Zelda, languishes in a North Carolina asylum. . .  O’Nan places Scott back at center stage, with a sympathetic portrayal of a troubled genius, a kind but deeply flawed man trying to stay on the wagon while keeping the peace between his unstable wife and their teenage daughter. After a span of nearly 20 years, Fitzgerald comes back into contact with his first love, the rich, unattainable Ginevra, clearly his model for Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, all while falling into an intense love affair with Sheilah Graham, a Hollywood gossip columnist many years his junior. Sheilah is a fascinating character in her own right, a wholly self-invented heroine who could have stepped out of the pages of one of Fitzgerald’s own novels. O’Nan has masterfully re-created the feel and ambience of the Hollywood studio system in the late 1930s, where Fitzgerald is hired to doctor scripts that might never see the light of day and frequently finds himself defenseless against overweening producers and back-stabbing co-writers. Meanwhile, Zelda remains at the mercy of the all-powerful Dr. Carroll, existing at the center of an emotional tug of war between Scott and his disapproving mother-in-law. O’Nan has crafted an insightful glimpse into a sad period in Fitzgerald’s life, as he fades into poverty, drunkenness and anonymity among a cast of notables, after his and Zelda’s reign as America’s literary golden couple and before his resurgence into universal acclaim.”

“A mesmerizing and haunting novel. . .O’Nan delivers – whole-body – the sensation that you are deep inside a living, breathing, suffering consciousness. . .Another triumph of the novel surfaces in O’Nan’s wily insinuation into Fitzgerald’s creative life, how it breathes through his everyday existence.  Movingly and believingly, the manner in which a writer works – thinks, processes, assimilates, envies – is given life.   And that is ultimately what makes the book so special,” says The Boston Globe.

When is it available?

This touching story is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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