Review of Stewart O'Nan's West of Sunset

Review of Stewart O'Nan's West of Sunset

by
Christian Messenger
2017-07-02

In this review of O’Nan’s West of Sunset, Messenger explores 20th Century American literary history as a kind of contemporary metafictional myth. Using Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald as characters composing the life of a literary icon against the emergence of “Hollywood,” O’Nan’s work is considered a bittersweet meditation on the death of an author and the hope that his work lives on.

There’s an inexhaustible market for stories of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. They are firmly in the weave of heroic modernism, poster-children for a generation’s promise, achievement, excess, and tragic denouement in the wake of Zelda’s diagnosed schizophrenia and Scott’s alcoholism, fragile aging, and early death. Stewart O’Nan’s novel West of Sunset definitely marks a change in the set of novels that would approach the almost mythical careers of these modernists as subjects for current fiction. O’Nan’s excellent imagining of Scott Fitzgerald’s last years in Hollywood puts the lie to the largely necrophiliac star-fucking that reduces complex people and artists through bare-bones clichés which allow free-range scavenging across well-worn lives and texts to sustain the melodrama.

Scott and Zelda have become as public a couple in American literary history as Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, as Dick and Nicole Diver, as vivid and fascinating to the American reading public as these Fitzgeraldian fictional avatars. In recent years, there have been as many novels about their marriage as critical studies of the Fitzgerald fiction. 2013 alone yielded Therese Ann Fowler, Z.; Erika Robuck, Call Me Zelda; R. Clifton Spargo, Beautiful Fools; and Lee Smith, Guests on Earth. Biographies of Scott and Zelda—both joint and separate—line a shelf of their own in the past half-century.

A novelist who would accept the challenge of writing through another author’s (famous) sensibility must be able to write on par with his author-subject, not only parrot back known dialogue and plot but tell the reader something beyond what the famed author might have created about his/her self and works in a style that both gestures to the known and informs us in new semantic rows. In the case of Scott Fitzgerald, O’Nan must portray a late muted coda to a famous career without becoming repetitive, maudlin or overly sentimental. His putative readers already know a great deal about Scott, Zelda, Hollywood, Sheilah Graham and the “Hollywood Novel,” especially since the material was transmuted into Scott’s tantalizingly unfinished The Love of the Last Tycoon (1941), which many critics feel earns the title of best American movieland fiction ever.

After the publication of Scott’s Tender Is the Night in April 1934 and Zelda’s one-woman showing of her paintings (at Cary Ross’s gallery in New York City, March 29-April 30, 1934), both Fitzgeralds essentially fell apart together and separately in the next year, and in the summer of 1935, Scott first came to Asheville, North Carolina to dry out and regain his health. In the next year he published The Crack-Up in Esquire (March 1936) and also returned to Asheville with Zelda who was installed at Highland Hospital, the facility in which she would more or less permanently reside until a fire there took her life in March 1948. West of Sunset always has its heart there in Asheville, which Scott returns to like his “true north,” to Zelda, who remains a sad and devastating pull on his heart and remaining emotional energy. It is within this pendulum between Hollywood—where he writes haltingly and heroically with depleted resource—and Zelda in Asheville that West of Sunset is firmly constructed.

How do you negotiate “making it new” through a fiction that freshly portrays what is known about America’s star-crossed 20’s couple as doomed jazz age children and substantiates what there might still be to find out? O’Nan carefully carves out a small latter part of FSF’s career, the Hollywood years after Tender Is the Night that exhaust and frustrate him until his early death. O’Nan eschews the easier subject of Scott’s major novels and the Fitzgeralds’ earlier escapades and grimly (if often comically) portrays a degrading and humbling Hollywood residency in which Scott is an earnest studio hireling and serious alcoholic, while still drawn emotionally and psychically to Zelda’s and their daughter Scottie’s lives on the east coast. Repeated trips east draw Scott back to Zelda and Scottie in grim outings that mock the earlier public flamboyance of their family lives in the 1920’s. O’Nan gives us Scottie as a teenage daughter pulled between a husk of a mother, and an exhausted and melancholy father. O’Nan sees Scott’s final years ticking down Scott’s works and days between his two loves far away from him and his Hollywood residency and final sunset on Sunset (Boulevard) that will result in Scott’s death from a heart attack at age 44 in December 1940.

The opening frame of the novel occurs in Asheville in a car with Zelda, the recurring lodestar of Scott’s life: “To his shame, looking back, he couldn’t pinpoint when she’d lost control of herself, or how long it had taken him to notice. Now he watched her closely, knowing from terrible experience that at any second she might lunge across and grab the wheel.” This is where O’Nan picks up the Fitzgeralds’ story, not at a high or sensational point but at a desperate stasis of resignation punctuated by moments of beauty. We begin in Asheville and keep coming back there, inexorably through heart and mind, for “Visiting was always hard, but these field trips were a torture, even more so when they went well. In the end, he was charged with returning her to her cloister.”

O’Nan ‘s Scott Fitzgerald is human, frail, a weary and wary sentimentalist, a bad drunk, and an often charming, if shaky and volatile companion. There are hints at what his unfinished The Love of the Last Tycoon (1941) might have become—we see Scott beginning work on the novel, rushed as it was, in the last year of his life. Most of West of Sunset imagines his spinning of gears, keeping body and soul together as a studio hack, constantly writing and reworking scenes for MGM and other studios that are dismissed, written over, projects stalled and discontinued.

O’Nan deftly weaves in just enough dialogue scenes with familiar literary and Hollywood names to keep inquiring readers on point and alert: Humphrey Bogart and his aggressive wife, Mayo Methot, Ernest Hemingway, Nathanael West, Dorothy Parker, Joan Crawford, and Robert Benchley, as well as the usual Fitzgerald suspects, his secretary Frances Kroll, a young Budd Schulberg, and of course, Sheilah Graham, who tolerantly and doggedly comes to Scott’s rescue several times in the shambles of his alcoholism and final illnesses. Bogie, Dottie, and Benchley flit in and out at the storied Garden of Allah apartments off Sunset where Scott first rents an apartment. They often function like a jaded Greek chorus to the dream factory but the text is mostly third person limited omniscient in Scott’s sensibility with O’Nan filling in background when necessary, as if Scott is taking notes for his own memoir. Dorothy Parker clearly emerges as the champion of studio quips remarking on the plot Louis Pasteur film project script: “Boy meets germ, boy loses germ” and telling Scott, “You’ve always been a sucker for a pretty face—your own.”

In Hollywood for his third tour of duty in 1937 (earlier forays had been in 1926 and 12931), O’Nan’s Scott is an ill-equipped knight again assaulting the citadel of dreams, and attempting once more to fathom both its softness and hard bottom line. Scott provides gritty and fine detail of Los Angeles in the mid-1930’s: “that afternoon, to get his bearings, he took the streetcar to Hollywood, an interminable journey that left him sweating and thirsty; The other riders were mainly Mexicans in shirtsleeves and dungarees, and he felt foolish in his suit.” Scott concludes about Los Angeles, “Half beach, half desert, the place was never meant to be habitable.” At other moments, O’Nan can juxtapose the almost surreal and high culture-pop culture splits that Scott’s studio life engendered: “He was reading Nostromo when the noon siren blew, summoning the lot to lunch” at the MGM commissary which “was much like Cottage, his dining club at Princeton: while the place was open to all, the best tables were tacitly reserved for the chosen. The rest of them were extras.” O’Nan’s deft blending of Fitzgerald’s beloved Princeton into the rueful class commentary on a Louis B. Mayer and the plebes is emblematic of many sharp visuals as his Scott describes his works and days, limning the incongruities of his Hollywood errand. The MGM Christmas party turns into hybrid “footage” of office revelry and stage set punctuated by the vibrancy and vulgarity of their craft: “The studio was an open house, stars and carpenters and secretaries mingling freely, the commissary turned into a dancehall. The projection rooms, normally reserved for the producers’ more serious deliberations, played stag films from someone’s private collection to hooting standing-room crowds bombed on eggnog.”

O’Nan show Scott aghast at a premiere of a film he had doctored along with many other writers, where hardly any shards of his work appear on screen after homage given to censors and popular “taste.” Most of Scott’s Hollywood work is a true writer’s nightmare where projects are team-written, re-written, delayed, cancelled, and spliced. Alternately, we are informed of how diligently Scott worked and of the tricks in working on a script, only to see garbled and watered-down scenes and language that panders. Such is O’Nan’s homage to Scott who relished writing scenes of men at work, specifically taking Dick Diver through a morning at his psychiatric clinic or Monroe Stahr on a day managing his empire on the back-lot.

Scott Fitzgerald in West of Sunset is still gifted with a flickering romantic and sentimental sensibility, but more often attuned to a waning of shared life. Each visit to Zelda by Scott in the novel is like attending a living wake in their collective memory. O’Nan is deft in heartbreaking descriptions of Zelda: “The blouse she buttoned up—unironed, showing every fold—was a bright pistachio with a vestigial pocket over her left breast. It was a full size too big, and hung on her like a muumuu”; Scott concludes, “whatever happiness he might find, her misery would always be his.” His visits with her are ominous, as we wait for what will send her into emotional disarray, him into drunken grief.

When Zelda and Scott are on another ill-fated trip to Florida, she runs in panic through hotel corridors with Scott in pursuit; other men intervene and believe him to be an attacker, and slam him against a wall. Zelda with broken teeth and wild hair tells the assembled crowd, “He’s crazy … he escaped from a mental hospital,’ displaying Scott’s great fear about her. In letters from the mid-1930s’s, Scott had surmised that one day Zelda would be acclaimed as a great writer, while he would be carried off, gibbering. In another hair-raising scene, Scott is in constant physical exertion that he can ill-afford. Attending a cockfight in California, a bloodied, broken bird collapses at his feet. The frail Scott “scoop[s] up the dying bird like a loose fumble” and tries to outrun the mob “like they were Groton’s heavy-footed secondary,” O’Nan referencing a firm early Fitzgerald fantasy about prep school football heroics. Drunk and older, Scott “caught his toe on the wall going over, and before he could get up they were on him” (redolent of Dick Diver seriously beaten in a Rome police station in Tender). West of Sunset readers continually wince at Scott’s battering from such moments, as well as the emotional toll taken on his waning creative energies.

Two other well-drawn figures are daughter Scottie and Sheilah Graham. Scottie is wary and absolutely skeptical of her mother’s incoherence and neglect; she’s trying to hold herself together, both within and without the spectacle of her collapsing parents. Sheilah Graham is the tough English survivor of a difficult childhood, navigating her way through Hollywood’s thicket while repeatedly coming to aid an increasingly pathetic Scott who is as much her patient and child as he is her lover.

O’Nan solves one problem of how to write of Scott’s views of a Sheilah Graham, who did become a model for Kathleen, the heroine pursued by Hollywood producer Monroe Stahr in The Love of the Last Tycoon. O’Nan provides strong details for a profile of a Sheilah Graham, for example, but in a catalogue, as if Scott is doing character sketches, personality and physical points. Since Scott Fitzgerald was so meticulous in keeping notebooks full of his own best material, as well as cannibalizing his own minor short stories, the reader gets a valid look of how he might have “worked up” a Sheilah Graham personality for his own fiction. Such a decision by O’Nan gives his reader a sense of what Scott’s finished prose would look like if he were to write it. The third person omniscient narration from Scott’s point-of-view is thus a workshop production giving us the pieces, ”the irregular glass pieces” that Fitzgerald had referenced so carefully in Tender, what a novelist stores up until they are of use. Scott is clear-eyed about Sheilah as savior: “He was used to scenes—screaming, glasses smashing—but she wasn’t Zelda. She’d begun her newspaper career as a stringer, and had that scavenger’s obdurate patience.”

Each moment of tender sex with Sheilah is fraught with Scott’s heart episodes, so fitting and yet so horrible for a writer whose characters always led with their hearts. O’Nan’s Scott is enervatingly ethereal, yet with a tenacity and self-wounding last burst of energy; there are harrowing drunk scenes in which the reader fears for Scott’s life even before the inevitable finale. Each day and chapter uses up a little more of him and as in reading The Love of the Last Tycoon, you know that the story will end before any plausible or desirable ending.

O’Nan’s Hollywood, Malibu, and Encino locales have their ghostly aspects. One long night after a good writing session, Scott realizes he’s out of cigarettes and needs to make a midnight run to a famed Schwab’s drugstore across sunset from the Garden of Allah apartments. Pacific coast mist hangs in the air, the pool lights flicker through the water, cars on Sunset “thr[e]w shadows across the palms.” Scott hurries across lanes of traffic; the lights in Schwab’s are still on but the door is locked: he won’t be “discovered” there. Then, through the window, “the aisles of Schwab’s turned purple … . He opened his mouth to call for help, but his breath left him, and before he could grab the magazine rack along the wall, he was gone.” O’Nan thus recreates Scott’s first serious angina attack as he perhaps reaches out for what’s left of his own green light at the end of Daisy’s dock: cigarettes at Schwab’s and the magazine rack where his own short fiction might be read. A brilliant harbinger here of Scott’s final heart attack that takes him, trying to “save time,” the neon lights flickering out.

O’Nan has Scott’s “last helpless thought” the moment of his fatal heart attack to be, “But I’m not done,” as the scenes from his fiction fleetingly pass through his mind one last time. This simple phrase and yearning is so very Scott Fitzgerald, always the hopeful romantic and sentimentalist in the face of tragedy and loss. The beginning of the end is at Schwab’s on Sunset Boulevard, which, of course, finally dead-ends at the Pacific Coast Highway and the terminus of the continent, west of Hollywood and always chasing a setting sun. At the conclusion of the film version of The Last Tycoon (1976), director Elia Kazan and screen writer Harold Pinter finish the unfinished story of Monroe Stahr by having him walk out of the bright California sun into the interior of the darkened soundstage where Stahr fades out, in the world of pure possibility he has created.

As West of Sunset sets, O’Nan begins to more frequently let Scott, Scottie, and Zelda speak for themselves by quoting their actual letters. It’s a most graceful authorial gesture. O’Nan’s final two views of Scott are condolence letters letter written to Scottie by Sheilah and Zelda, respectively; Sheilah’s powerful estimate of Scott is hard-bitten and hard-won, as she is. Zelda writes of an eerily distant religious solace, citing an all-knowing Christ the King and God. A final plaudit for O’Nan beyond these actual letters is that West of Sunset stands on its own merit as a “dying fall” novel that yet provides a hopeful writerly spirit rilling beyond the mortality, exactly what Scott Fitzgerald favored for Tender Is the Night and I think he might approve of O’Nan’s effort. In any case, as Scott wrote about Dick Diver back in America at Tender’s conclusion, he is in that part of the fictional country. We’re left with Scott’s gift for hope and his work, even as he departs all too soon.

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