Stewart O’Nan’s latest novel, West of Sunset, tells the story of Fitzgerald’s final few years as a Hollywood screenwriter. But this is not the high flying Fitzgerald of the Gatsby days, or the years after spent chasing Zelda around Paris. In this chapter of his life we find Fitzgerald nearly broke, Zelda confined to a sanitarium, and daughter Scottie off at boarding school. Though only in his early 40’s, this Fitzgerald has had too many late nights, too many cigarettes, and his efforts to quit drinking mostly end in failure. Through connections, however, he is given a chance to go to Hollywood and write for the movies.
As a contract screenwriter, Fitzgerald finds himself much lower on the totem pole than he is used to. The actors, directors, and especially the producers run the town. You can be hired one day, fired the next, or be easily replaced by someone’s relative or friend. Still, he begins carving out some kind of life for himself, even finding a steady girlfriend in gossip columnist Sheilah Graham (who has quite a story of her own). But with Zelda’s deteriorating mental health and his own drinking problem, it’s a life of "boats against the current", as he wrote so well in The Great Gatsby.
As I was reading this interesting novel, I thought of the character Hubbell Gardner from the movie "The Way We Were". Hubbell writes a story about a bright young man similar to himself. “In a way he was like the country he lived in; everything came too easily to him.” Fitzgerald may have felt like that after success at such a young age, and it’s fascinating to read about him reflecting back to those days while looking forward to a very uncertain future. Are there no second acts in American lives? If not, he sure came close.