There are really three stories here woven into one compelling narrative: Fitzgerald’s attempt at professional reinvention, his romantic quest to re-create with Graham the once-electric love he shared with Zelda in the 1920s and his guilt-driven obligation to support his scattered family by paying for Zelda’s hospitalization and his daughter’s education at prep school and later Vassar.
Any one of these stories by itself would be interesting. Skillfully woven together, they comprise the best Golden Age Hollywood novel to come down Sunset Boulevard in years.
“West of Sunset” is deeply researched, but the book wears it lightly — true events and real-life people are seamlessly woven into O’Nan’s imagined world. And the author’s prose, as always, is simple but eloquent — somehow, magically, he makes it look easy. Figures like Bogart and Fitzgerald’s friend/foe Ernest Hemingway are fully realized, not just characters used for perfunctory name-dropping.
Best of all, though, is O’Nan’s main character. “West of Sunset” is a big-hearted and fascinating look at this complex man — a troubled genius who was half inside a celebrity’s glamorous life and, poignantly, half outside it.
Q: Why F. Scott Fitzgerald?
A: It’s F. Scott Fitzgerald at that time in his life. I wondered how he could come back from what he had gone through. I’ve always been a big fan of his essay, “The Crack-Up.” When everything that you care about has been lost, where do you go from there? For him, it was Hollywood.
Q: What were your main concerns when you started working on the book?
A: Well, first off, I’m not from Los Angeles. I’m not a West Coast guy. I’ve visited, of course, but I don’t know that much about that place or that time. The challenge was how to get back into the spirit of the place when he was there. It helped that Scott was a fish out of water when he went, too, so I could see it through his eyes that way.