West of Sunset – Stewart O’Nan

As the last book I bought on my European summer travels (purchased in Oxford, if you must know) – I didn’t want this sweet read to end. I made it last almost 3 weeks in fact, savouring every word.

O’Nan writes a fictional/biographical piece about one of my favourite authors, Fitzgerald, in the most trying years of his life. I knew how it was going to end and it was a pretty depressing read the whole way through, but I really enjoyed this nonetheless.

Towards the end of his life, in his late thirties/early forties, Fitzgerald was broke, not hugely well known and his family was a sha-mozzle. Zelda was being treated for schizophrenia in an asylum, their daughter Scottie was away at boarding school, and Fitzgerald himself was paying their board while battling his own health issues and alcoholism.

This book is set right when he enters Hollywood. It was fascinating to learn a few of the movies Fitzgerald contributed to (i.e. Gone with the Wind) – yet he never got credit for this because he was moved around so often and barely contributed enough to matter. In this account by O’Nan we see how much he loathed Hollywood, yet with his short stories no longer making any money, he was forced to deal with needy producers, actors and others to make lame script that was chopped and changed anyway.

O’Nan does a great job at conveying the helplessness of Fitzgerald’s situation. As he didn’t receive much renown until after his death, he was receiving measly royalties for his novels, yet was driven to keep writing. We see how he strives to produce one last book set in Hollywood… yet he never completes it. He’s about 75% done when one last heart attack claims his life. (The Last Tycoon was published posthumously however, and I really like it.)

So yes. This was damn depressing, but I loved it. I’m not sure how spot on O’Nan was with his account, and at times I wished he was writing Fitzgerald a little differently, but still this really put his last years into perspective.

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