As I read West of Sunset, Stewart O’Nan’s lovely, sad fictionalized account of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final years, I found myself wondering what Maureen Corrigan would think.
Maureen Corrigan has been NPR’s book critic for 25 years. She also reviews regularly for many national publications and is the Critic in Residence at Georgetown University. Last fall, she shared her longtime passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece in So We Read on: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures. Often underappreciated and misread because of its brevity and apparent simplicity, the novel is, she says, our “Greatest American Novel”:
Gatsby‘s magic emanates not only from its powerhouse poetic style — in which ordinary American language becomes unearthly — but from the authority with which it nails who we want to be as Americans.
Corrigan, like so many of us, first encountered The Great Gatsby as a teenager. “I thought The Great Gatsby was a boring novel about rich people,” she says in her book’s introduction.”The bad news is that we read it in high school or even (shudder) junior high, when we’re much too young . . .” Then she spends almost 300 pages explaining why she thinks The Great Gatsby is truly The Great American Novel, worth reading again and again.
“Are you tired of it yet?” my husband and close friends would ask me every so often during the time I was writing this book and, of course, rereading The Great Gatsby. I can honestly answer “No.” I don’t know how he did it, but Fitzgerald wrote a novel that shows me new things every time I read it. That, for me, is the working definition of a great book: one that’s inexhaustible.
The Great Gatsby, originally published in 1925, initially sold poorly and received mixed reviews. By the mid-thirties, not only was the country in a depression — so was Fitzgerald’s career. He suffered from a host of physical illnesses that were complicated by alcoholism; his wife, Zelda, was incarcerated in a mental hospital; and he was deeply in debt. No one at that time would have predicted that Fitzgerald’s short novel would one day be the most widely read books in the world, eventually selling more than 25 million copies.
West of Sunset opens as Fitzgerald, badly in need of money to pay for Zelda’s medical care and his daughter Scottie’s private school tuition, heads west to Hollywood to take a screenwriting job at a movie studio:
Six months at a thousand a week. He wanted to tell Zelda face-to-face, but she was in isolation . . . “Dearest Heart, he wrote. Please forgive me. I have to leave for now to pursue our fortunes. I wish there were any other way. Keep working and try to be good, and I will where I am.
Like so many Americans, F. Scott Fitzgerald went west in search of new opportunities. A native Midwesterner, Fitzgerald spent most of his life as a nomad. He ended up in Los Angeles in a series of hotel rooms and rental houses. The years he spent there, as a hardworking (and hard-drinking) screenwriter and “rewrite man”, are the years Stewart O’Nan re-imagines in West of Sunset.
Stewart O’Nan is a writer with a big heart. I haven’t read all his books, but the ones I’ve read all center on ordinary people coming to grips with loss and failure. F. Scott Fitzgerald is no ordinary person, but his struggles are not so different from those of Art and Marion, the couple facing divorce and bankruptcy in The Odds, Manny, the manager whose restaurant is closing in Last Night at the Lobster, and the widowed title character of Emily, Alone. West of Sunset could very well have been titled F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alone. What comes through in all these books is O’Nan’s enormous affection for his characters — characters who are trying to face life’s challenges with courage and integrity.
When Fitzgerald first arrives in Los Angeles, his employers arrange to put him up at a hotel in Santa Monica, “as if to quarantine him”. His friends Dorothy Parker (“Dottie”) and her husband, Alan Campbell (who have a “curious sort of Boston marriage . . . They both preferred younger men and fought like mongooses, yet were inseparable”) are appalled that he is staying so far west of Hollywood:
“You don’t want to be there,” Dorothy said. “It’s not near anything.”
“It’s near the beach.”
“The beach is for people who can’t read,” Alan said.
Fitzgerald tries desperately to succeed as a screenwriter, but he is repeatedly met with humiliating failure. An article in the New York Times (“Fitzgerald as Screenwriter: No Hollywood Ending”) says:
Sadly, most of his work was to no avail. Billy Wilder, Fitzgerald’s friend and admirer in his Hollywood days, always thought the notion of turning him into a screenwriter was a little misguided. He once compared Fitzgerald to ”a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job.’
What is to be found “west of sunset”? Actually, death. Once the sun sets the day is over. I think this must be what O’Nan is alluding to in his title, because a glance at a map of LA shows that Sunset Boulevard runs from east to west — so nothing is literally “west of sunset”. Fitzgerald was writing The Love of the Last Tycoon, a novel about a dying Hollywood producer, at the time of his own death. Gatsby, ever hopeful, “believed in the green light” at the end of Daisy’s dock — to the east of his own home in West Egg. Fitzgerald shared his character’s optimism — and like Gatsby, died young and alone. (Well, not exactly alone. He did have a passionate, troubled relationship with Sheilah Graham, a Hollywood gossip columnist.)
And what does Maureen Corrigan think of Stewart O’Nan’s biographical novel? I was relieved to find that she reviewed it favorably in the Washington Post:
As Fitzgerald fans know, he began working on a novel about Hollywood during his tour of duty there, but a heart attack — probably his third — cut short his life and career at age 44. The Love of the Last Tycoon, even though unfinished, is a pretty fine Hollywood novel. West of Sunset is a pretty fine Hollywood novel, too, but it’s an even finer novel about a great writer’s determination to keep trying to do his best work, to keep reaching for “the silver pepper of the stars,” even at a time when he was universally dismissed as a has-been.
Now I’m going to do what Corrigan suggests — reread The Great Gatsby as an adult. I can’t find my old copy, but I do have my son’s copy from his high school years. The binding, sad to say, looks suspiciously uncracked, and I don’t see any highlighting or notes in the margins. Maybe he needs to read it for the first time?
For additional reading, I highly recommend Sarah Churchwell’s excellent book, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, which explores the novel’s origins by examining the events of 1922 — in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life and in the world around him. (The book was published in 1925 but was set in 1922.)
This post is part of the Jazz Age January linkup hosted by Books Speak Volumes.