West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan Review
By Steve Nathans-Kelly
Two familiar quotations from revered American author F. Scott Fitzgerald have come to define the writer’s final years, each in its way emblematic of Fitzgerald’s titanic talent and well documented decline:
There are no second acts in American lives.
I’ve left my capacity for hoping on the little roads that led to Zelda’s sanitarium.
The first quote, unearthed among Fitzgerald’s notes for his unfinished last novel,The Last Tycoon, typifies the problematic side of Fitzgerald’s virtuosic genius: insightful, eloquent, alchemically agile at transmuting the personal into the universal … and also a little bit sloppy. The generally accepted interpretation of this quote holds that Fitzgerald lamented something akin to a line sung by a relatively resurgent 60-year-old Bob Dylan: “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.”
The problem with Fitzgerald’s “second acts” quote? In the world of Hollywood screenwriting where the author struggled in the last years of his life to script a return to literary glory, Fitzgerald’s life already approached the end of a devastating second act. Fitzgerald’s life lacked a third act: regeneration, redemption, resolution.
On the other hand, the second quote, conveyed in private correspondence, evokes with naked candor the irreversible dissipation of the last part of Fitzgerald’s life. Stewart O’Nan captures this final half-decade vividly in his new novel West of Sunset. O’Nan might accurately have subtitled it “The Hollywood Years.”