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West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan

January 1, 2016


Scott Fitzgerald is often quoted as having written, “There are no second acts in American lives.” That is a misrepresentation of the actual meaning of what he wrote. Originally, he included the context of, “I used to think that there are no second acts…but…” Regardless, it comes to mind when reading West of Sunset, a fictionalized account of Fitzgerald’s life as a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter twelve years after the publication of The Great Gatsby.

I read and enjoyed Stewart O’Nan’s Songs for the Missing back in 2009. He’s published a few since then—novels I’ve added to my list but haven’t actually picked up. Then one night a few months ago, I happened across a podcast (“Otherppl with Brad Listi”) in which O’Nan talked about West of Sunset. It sounded good. It is good. I’m glad I heard that podcast.

West of Sunset picks up Fitzgerald’s story in 1937. He is of poor health, his wife Zelda is in a mental hospital across the country, and he makes ends meet by begging for scraps of projects in “the Iron Lung,” MGM’s screenwriting division.

West of Sunset shreds several illusions at once—the idea of the successful writer, set for life; the writer as solitary genius; anything sacred about writing. Here you have the writer of what is considered one of the very best American novels ever written, scraping by month to month, borrowing money to make ends meet. Scott (as his friends call him) is bouncing around like a bolt come loose in the machine. His days are done. He’s not aspiring to greatness. He’s just trying to pay for groceries.

As he paddles around the Hollywood pond, he tries to figure out what to do about the Zelda situation, particularly in light of other love interests he might have. And he tries to be a good father to his daughter. Their relationship is particularly tender, and at one point he lays this piece of advice on her (though it’s clear it is as much about him):

You must know by now that life presents us with only so many opportunities, and the greatest regrets attach to those we squander, whether through sloth or weakness or pride. What I am asking is that you stick with it, whatever it is, so that when you get to be my age, you look back and can say you did everything you could.

O’Nan creates a spellbinding mood, painting 1930s Hollywood so vividly that one feels as if they’ve watched a film. The story is melancholy at times, but also funny. Scott’s relationship with other writers, particularly Ernest Hemmingway, is a joy to witness. It was a bummer to keep reminding myself that this was a fictionalized account. Writers are strange creatures, and I love reading about their idiosyncrasies, fictional or otherwise.

I delighted in this book the way I did Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, another book about writers (O’Nan and Chabon both have Pittsburgh connections, maybe coincidentally).

I’m also psyched to see that James Ponsoldt, who directed the excellent David Foster Wallace biopic, The End of the Tour, is set to direct a film adaptation of West of Sunset. Should be an good film, if you like to see writers be idiosyncratic on the big screen.

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