Chicago Tribune: How F. Scott Fitzgerald went from washed up to winner again

In the Chicago Tribune:

Hollywood doesn’t have a benevolent reputation when it comes to nurturing novelists, but F. Scott Fitzgerald, it seems, had little grounds for complaint.

In fact, the down-on-his-luck writer used the opportunity to work as a highly paid day laborer on screenplays including “Gone with the Wind” to rejuvenate himself personally and professionally before his sudden death at the age of 44. Those rewarding final years in Hollywood are the subject of Stewart O’Nan’s 14th novel “West of Sunset” and appearance March 21 at novelist Elizabeth Berg’s Writing Matters event at the Hemingway Museum in Oak Park.

We caught up with O’Nan for a few quick questions about Fitzgerald, “West of Sunset” and his admiration for people who react to dire circumstances with resilience and endurance.

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And a reminder:

Author Stewart O’Nan discusses his novel ‘West of Sunset’

7 p.m. March 21

Hemingway Museum, 200 N. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park

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Reviews of West of Sunset from Tweed’s, HuffPo, and Chicago Tribune

Considering the abundance of material by and about Fitzgerald, it might be reasonable to ask what a novelization of his life might offer. The answer, like Fitzgerald’s best writing, is simple and beautiful—it’s an amazing story. Focusing on the final years of his life, Stewart O’Nan’s remarkable new novel, West of Sunset, shows Fitzgerald in Hollywood hoping to engender that elusive “second act.”

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In his new novel West of Sunset, Stewart O’Nan imagines Fitzgerald’s last years with passionate intensity (and I do not use the phrase with W.B. Yeats’s negative edge). Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald have long been subjected to fictionalized autobiography, in poor Zelda’s case less historical fiction than what I call, with dismay, hysterical fiction. Such novels often claim to be thoroughly researched – a paradoxical claim for fiction. Some are well-written and engaging, and some are awful, simply capitalizing on the golden Fitzgerald name. West of Sunset does not invoke that name. Its cover does not feature famous faces, but evokes Hollywood of the Golden Years, foregrounded by an old typewriter (Fitzgerald hand-wrote, but, in Hollywood, appreciated the plentifully-availably typists). Within, O’Nan has made not only a good novel, but a sensitive, sad tribute to a writer he clearly loves.

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O’Nan, author of more than a dozen works of fiction, skillfully pulls us into Fitzgerald’s gilded and yet familiar world. He brings the Hollywood legends to life. By the end, they feel like friends, one of O’Nan’s aims.

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More Best of 2012 for The Odds

More Best of 2012 for The Odds!

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The piercingly perceptive author of “Last Night at the Lobster” and “Emily, Alone” starts this gemlike stunner in Cleveland, where middle-class Art and Marion Fowler stuff $8,000 in a gym bag, flee their foreclosing suburban home and take a bus to Niagara Falls, Canada. Art hopes for a gambling score and rekindled romance on the $249 “Valentine’s Getaway Special”; Marion wants out. This brief, of-our-times story is full of surprise. O’Nan, a Pittsburgh resident, may well be the best Midwestern novelist going.

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There is a unique pleasure in reading a writer who has been on your list for some time but has evaded capture. For me, that writer was Stewart O’Nan. I had caught references to the wonders of his writing for years and received suggestions to read this or that. But it wasn’t until I picked up his 2012 novel “The Odds” that I understood what friends and critics had been talking about.

“The Odds” is subtitled “A Love Story,” but it is the tale of a love that has gone through the wringer of betrayal and disappointment amid the financial squeeze of an economy that has driven more than a few couples into a ditch. Art and Marion Fowler’s marriage is on the brink of collapse; they’ve lost their jobs and now they’re threatened with the loss of their home. So they decide to return to Niagara Falls to revisit the tourist spot where they honeymooned. In a gym bag is all the money they have left; their goal is to turn thousands of dollars in cash into many thousands more.

Art also hopes to save their marriage, much to the dismay of Marion, who has all but checked out, bitter over a long-ago affair and disillusioned with how Art has met middle age. Touring the falls, playing the roulette wheel — with a sure-fire system to win — and seeing the band Heart all figure into Art’s hail Mary of a plan to win back his wife before it’s too late — and, perhaps, keep their home.

O’Nan writes with a stunning precision and deep reservoir of empathy for Art and Marion — the same qualities that enlivened “Last Night at the Lobster,” his novel of the closing of a Red Lobster restaurant. My advice: Don’t make the mistake I did by waiting to read O’Nan. Read him now.

Steve Mills, Tribune reporter

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