F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of those great American writers whose work is often eclipsed by his own legend. He’s so well-known as a wild-partying alcoholic who squandered his wealth while his wife, Zelda, lived out her days in a mental hospital that critics often quote (and misquote) his most famous line—”there are no second acts in American lives”—as if it described his own final days, when the glow of The Great Gatsby was dimming and he was starting work on The Last Tycoon. There’s a certain romance to the tortured-genius mythology, but Stewart O’Nan makes quick work of dispelling it in this beautifully written historical novel.
West of Sunset, which follows Fitzgerald’s stint as a screenwriter during the 1930s, captures that era of Hollywood well, offering juicy scenes with Humphrey Bogart, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and other Fitzgerald friends and hangers-on, while lending witty dialogue to his affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, a doomed romance that’s worthy of a classic film. (A typical scene: Wondering if they’re really a couple, Sheilah asks, ”Are you with me?” and Scott replies, ”I’m not against you,” before pulling her body against his.) But it’s the workaday quality of Fitzgerald’s late years that makes O’Nan’s novel so intriguing. In the end, this Jazz Age icon was reduced to not tragedy but mediocrity, driving a run-down car and doctoring scripts he didn’t get credit for. While that ordinariness can weigh down the novel’s pacing, it also makes Fitzgerald more human. Maybe there wasn’t a dramatic second act to his life. But thanks to O’Nan, there are now some lovely final chapters. B+
THE OPENING LINE
”That spring he holed up in the Smokies, in a tired resort hotel by the asylum so he could be closer to her.”