Stewart O’Nan is quite simply one of the best authors writing today. His quiet prose captures ordinary feelings and lifts them up in a light that shows them to be both specific to his characters and universal to the reader.
West of Sunset could be a departure for him; it’s an exploration of the final years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life at a time when this icon of American literature had not yet attained the immortality that came with his creation of Jay Gatsby. (In fact, he was better known for Tender is the Night–and for his outsized lifestyle–than the work most people remember him by.) Brought down by his drinking and reputation he has fallen so far that he is relying on the charitable intervention of Hollywood friends to earn a living. At the same time, his wife Zelda is institutionalized in a North Carolina sanitarium, where her youthful free spirit has metastasized into destructive mental illness. Between the cost of her treatment, their daughter Scottie’s high class Eastern education, and his own profligate ways, Fitzgerald is consumed by worries about money.
There are bright spots in his life: his friendship with Humphrey Bogart (based on a mutual love of drinking and literature–surprise!), his friends Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, and a love affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. But his working life, although it paid more than he was ever to earn from his books, was less rewarding.
O’Nan takes this period and delves into the frustration and pain of a man faced with more troubles than he can surmount. Far from being sheltered by his status (and by an income that exceeded that of nearly all Americans at the time), he knows he is as close to ruin as any Depression-era assembly-line working stiff. But he also finds respite in his own work, and in his desire to be the man Sheilah wants him to be. In essence, O’Nan is still attracted to those ordinary feelings, and with West of Sunset he once again lifts them up to us through the life of a very public man.
Find West of Sunset in the WRL catalog