Friday, July 17, 2015

West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan (2015)

West of Sunset is a recently published book written by Stewart O'Nan that fictionalises the time that my literary boyfriend F Scott Fitzgerald spent in Hollywood. Now, I usually avoid both books that fictionalise the lives of real people and books written by men, but the cover for this title was so gorgeous that I just couldn't resist.

See what I mean? It's gorgeous. Now, having finished the novel, I kind of do and I kind of don't regret having picked it up. Let me explain.

The novel opens just as F Scott Fitzgerald (Scott) has been offered a contract at MGM for $1,000 a week to fix scripts. He is broke, in debt and struggling with an alcohol addiction. His wife, Zelda, is in an institution and his daughter, Scottie is at boarding school. He packs up his hotel room, gets on a train and moves to Hollywood.

Once there, he starts work at "the Iron Lung" - the MGM building named after its late head Irving Thalberg (whom Scott liked and on whom his final work, The Last Tycoon, was based). He bumps into his old friends from New York, like Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell, and moves into the same apartment block as Humphrey Bogart (Bogie) and his second wife Mayo Methot (what a name!). This frequent and excellent research/name-dropping is the absolute best bit of this book. I spent just as much time on Wikipedia as I did actually reading the text and I now have a huge pile of books and DVDs on my desk waiting for me to find the time to read and watch them, starting with Tender is the Night and including Parker, Hemingway and Zelda's novel for good measure. When my eyes are tired from reading too much, I'll watch early Bogart and Crawford films and then the original A Star is Born, which I have (shamefully) never seen but was partly written by the great Dorothy Parker. This book inspired me to re-enter this amazing period in literature and film and for that I am incredibly grateful.

But. BUT! The protagonist of this book is supposed to be F Scott Fitzgerald. It is not F Scott Fitzgerald. Like many Scott fans, my knowledge of him has mainly been cobbled together from articles in Sunday papers, Matthew J Buccoli's biography Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, and reading his novels nine million times. Scott had his faults but he is my true literary boyfriend and I love him completely. One of his faults was his alcoholism, which defined him for much of his career. However, in West of Sunset, booze is just not that big a deal. Sure, references are made to empty bottles of gin and a bender or two but there is no sense of the great thirst that F Scott Fitzgerald was reportedly believed to have destroyed his life and his literary promise. Once he got to Hollywood, he just drank a lot of Coke and had an occasional gimlet. I did not buy that for one second. Alcoholics just don't give up alcohol that easily and with that little drama. 

What's more, O'Nan's Scott just walks around feeling sorry for everyone all the time. He feels sorry for Dorothy Parker, because they slept together a few times in the 1920s and he thinks it's a mistake but she'd go another round if he was up for it (never! Dottie was divine and Scotty was gorgeous; hence, never a regret. He should have been flattered or amused.). He feels sorry for his daughter, his wife, Bogie, Dietrich, Hemingway, Joan Crawford, everyone, including himself. The author of The Great Gatsby, who so exquisitely captured human emotion and the sense of both a particular time and the human condition, would never be reduced to just one key emotion: pity. I would have bought him wallowing in a bit of self-pity, but not all-around self-defining directed-at-everyone pity. Also, Sheilah Graham comes off like a bit of a pill and I just did not get her appeal at all. I know the real F Scott Fitzgerald was infatuated with her but it just did not translate for me through this book at all.

So, I didn't hate the book. I didn't like it and I absolutely would not recommend it but I am thankful to it for reminding me about a period of time I had forgotten about. Three stars.

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