West of Sunset
Stewart O'Nan
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Buy *West of Sunset* by Stewart O'Nanonline

West of Sunset
Stewart O'Nan
304 pages
January 2015
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Framing his novel around the glamour days of 1930s Hollywood during many of the town's most significant events in cinema history--the production of Gone with the Wind, the rise of Joan Crawford, and the filming of The Wizard of Oz--O’Nan writes of a down-on-his luck F. Scott Fitzgerald, who is looking to make it as a script writer. When his agent, Ober, tells him that Metro Goldwyn Mayer is interested in employing him, Scott jumps at the opportunity, holding tight to the promise of one thousand dollars a week and perhaps a chance to make enough money to cover his ever-increasing debts.

There’s no way he can pay both Zelda’s hospital fees and his daughter Scottie’s boarding school tuition. After seventeen years of marriage, he leaves his beloved wife and takes the Argonaut west, hoping to achieve a measure of sobriety and maybe even buy himself enough time to write his new novel. Scott is still bound to his wife by their shared loyalty, the two supporting one another to the exclusion of all else. Out of misplaced honor, or perhaps just plain delusion, Scott refuses to skimp on his responsibilities.

Just shy of thirty-seven, Zelda is “pinched and haggard, cronelike, her smile ruined by a broken tooth." For his part, Fitzgerald can still write, but his life has long since lost any semblance of order. A very different man from his vagabond years before the Crash, Scott, once the darling of the jazz age, arrives in Los Angeles (“a city of unrelenting sunlight”) fully aware that his life of wealth is now nothing more than a “fever dream.”

Ensconced in Metro’s “Iron Lung” of script writers, Scott loses himself in stargazing. Here in the “Lion’s Den” he spies Joan Crawford, the mole-like L.B. Mayer, George Cukor, and “gimlet-eyed” Myrna Loy, along with Ronald Coleman and Spencer Tracy. Told by the studio to say sober, Scott relies on sweets and a suitcase full of Cokes to give him his midday boost. Washing down yet another necessary pair of Benzedrine, he spends his days steadily doing patch jobs on scripts, “just another transplant” eager for work in a city that offers nothing more than substantial sunshine.

While staying at the Garden of Allah in Hollywood, a series of Mission-style, white stucco tourist cabins, Scott crosses paths with Sid Perelman, Don Stewart and Ogden Nash. Back at the studio, he sets eyes upon beautiful gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. Although he’s initially not interested, Scott finds Sheilah inextricably intoxicating. From late nights dancing at the Cocoanut Grove beneath a make-believe sky to days cruising along Sunset Boulevard, the two--outsiders of sorts--begin a romantic, passionate affair. Soon Scott is telling his new muse his deepest, darkest secrets, while she offers her older lover a measure of youth, warmth and vitality.

O’Nan’s talent is that he melds Scott’s disappointments and heartbreak with his bourgeoning love for Sheilah and his ineffable sense of duty to Zelda, who remains encased in Highland Sanitarium, gravitating between rage and medicated malaise and delirium. Although Scott travels back East to see her whenever he can, he knows that theirs is a love that is well and truly over, at once ruined by anger, sickness, and grief, “by too many others and too many nights apart.”

Entering the interior life of his famous writer, O’Nan’s gift is to show us how his embattled protagonist’s love of words and writing complements his ability to turn even the most tawdry of scripts into something much more. We live Scott’s long days and weeks of fretful effort as well as his bitter disappointments at having the studio kill yet another picture. At first devoted to his job, Scott soon descends into depression, his efforts a fruitless endeavor as he sees his work becoming nothing more than a dozen false starts, pages often rewritten by hacks or even ditched entirely.

Scott  tries to meet the Sheilah's demandswhile traveling back East to visit Zelda. But he must also attend to Scottie, who visits him in Los Angeles. Scott embarks on a “sweet espionage” that proves to be both physically and emotionally exhausting. As Sheilah awakens the romantic in Scott--something he never imagined he could be again--he worries about Zelda and what the truth about the affair will do to her. But there’s also the stress of never being able to keep pace with his debts in world where the real promise of financial security is nothing more than a fleeting mirage.

O’Nan shows how a man’s past can be keenly double-edged as his present life rapidly slides into something middling and empty. Although we know how the story will end, we just can’t tear ourselves away from Scott’s descent, with every passing day his health declining and failing. In the end, this is an unsparing, heartbreaking novel showing how passion, creativity, and despair can at once fuse into the heartbreaking soul of a great literary genius.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2015

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