West of Sunset (O'Nan)

West of Sunset 
Stewart O'Nan, 2015
Viking Adult
304 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780670785957

A novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last years in Hollywood

In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a troubled, uncertain man whose literary success was long over. In poor health, with his wife consigned to a mental asylum and his finances in ruins, he struggled to make a new start as a screenwriter in Hollywood. By December 1940, he would be dead of a heart  attack.

Those last three years of Fitzgerald’s life, often obscured by the legend of his earlier Jazz Age glamour, are the focus of Stewart O’Nan’s gorgeously and gracefully written novel.

With flashbacks to key moments from Fitzgerald’s past, the story follows him as he arrives on the MGM lot, falls in love with brassy gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, begins work on The Last Tycoon, and tries to maintain a semblance of family life with the absent Zelda and daughter, Scottie.

Fitzgerald’s orbit of literary fame and the Golden Age of Hollywood is brought vividly to life through the novel’s romantic cast of characters, from Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway to Humphrey Bogart. A sympathetic and deeply personal portrait of a flawed man who never gave up in the end, even as his every wish and hope seemed thwarted. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—February 4, 1961
Raised—Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
Education—B.S., Boston University; M.F.A., Cornell University
Awards—Drue Heinz Literature Prize; Pirate's Alley Faulkner Prize
Currently—lives in Avon, Connecticut

Stewart O'Nan is an American novelist, born in 1961 to John Lee O'Nan and Mary Ann O'Nan, (nee Smith). He and his brother were raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

He earned his B.S. at Boston University in 1983. While in Boston, O'Nan became a fan of the Red Sox. On October 27, 1984, he married Trudy Anne Southwick, his high school sweetheart. They moved to Long Island, New York, and he went to work for Grumman Aerospace Corporation in Bethpage, New York, as a test engineer from 1984 to 1988.

Encouraged by his wife to pursue a career in writing, they moved to Ithaca, New York, and O'Nan returned to college and graduated with his M.F.A. from Cornell University in 1992. His family and he then moved to Edmond, Oklahoma, and he taught at the University of Central Oklahoma and the University of New Mexico.

O'Nan's first book, and only collection of short stories, In the Walled City, was awarded the 1993 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. The same year, he was able to find a publisher for his second book, and first novel, Snow Angels—based on the story "Finding Amy" from his In the Walled City collection—when the manuscript earned him the first Pirate's Alley Faulkner Prize for the Novel, awarded by the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society of New Orleans. In 2007 Snow Angels was adapted for a film of the same title, directed by David Gordon Green, who also wrote the screenplay, and starring Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale.

In 1995, his family and he moved to Avon, Connecticut. He was a writer-in-residence and taught creative writing at Trinity College in nearby Hartford until 1997. The research he did for his novel The Names of the Dead led to the creation of a class that studied Vietnam War memoirs as a form of literature, which he also initially taught. In 1996, Granta named him one of America's Best Young Novelists.

In a 2002 article, "Finding Time to Write," O'Nan wrote:

Very simple things like keeping the manuscript with you at all times. Always keep it with you. That way you can always go back to it. Doesn't have to be the whole manuscript.

Another way to do this is to bring only the very last sentence that you worked on--where you left off, basically. Bring it with you on a sheet of paper or index card. Keep it on your person so that if you're running around the building where you're working, you take that five seconds to pull it out and look at it and say, "Okay, oh, maybe I'll do this with it. Maybe I'll do something else with it. Maybe I'll fix it there

In the spring of 2005 O'Nan spoke at the Lucy Robbins Welles Library in Newington, Connecticut, as the featured author in its One Book, 4 Towns program. When asked about Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season, the book he co-authored with Stephen King, O'Nan replied, "Who would have thought that writing a book about the Red Sox would be the luckiest thing I ever did in my life."

In 2008, Lonely Road Books sold out its pre-orders for O'Nan's latest writing, a screenplay simply titled Poe. It is a dramatic retelling of the life of Edgar Allan Poe. The screenplay was released as a limited edition of 200 copies and as a lettered edition of 26 copies. It features a foreword by Roger Corman and frontispieces by Jill Bauman.

1993 - In the Walled City (Stories)
1987 - Transmission
1994 - Snow Angels
1996 - The Names of the Dead
1997 - The Speed Queen
1998 - A World Away
1999 - A Prayer for the Dying
2000 - The Circus Fire (Nonfiction)
2001 - Everyday People
2002 - Wish You Were Here
2003 - The Night Country
2004 - Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans... (Nonfiction w/ Stephen King)
2005 - The Good Wife
2007 - Last Night at the Lobster
2008 - Songs for the Missing
2008 - Poe (Screenplay)
2011 - Emily, Alone
2012 - A Face in the Crowd (Novella e-book w/ Stephen King)
2012 - The Odds
2015 - West of Sunset
(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 2/16/2015.)

Book Reviews
[The] grim yet undeniably fascinating last act of Fitzgerald’s life is the subject of Stewart O’Nan’s gorgeous new novel.... West of Sunset is a pretty fine Hollywood novel, too, but it’s an even finer novel about a great writer’s determination to keep trying to do his best work.
Maureen Corrigan - Washington Post

A mesmerizing and haunting novel.... O’Nan’s prodigious power as a novelist asserts itself, which is to say you forget utterly that he’s behind the curtain and pulling a dazzling number of strings.... Above all, O’Nan delivers—whole-body—the sensation that you are deep inside a living, breathing, suffering consciousness.... Another triumph of the novel surfaces in O’Nan’s wily insinuation into Fitzgerald’s creative life, how it breathes through his everyday existence. Movingly and believingly, the manner in which a writer works—thinks, processes, assimilates, envies—is given life. And that is ultimately what makes the book so special.
Boston Globe

Just as O'Nan succeeded in drawing readers inside the heads of such ordinary people as the elderly widow Emily in Emily, Alone, or Manny DeLeon, the hapless chain-restaurant manager in Last Night at the Lobster, he inhabits Fitzgerald's very being and authentically depicts the writer's fluctuating mind-sets during the final years of his life…an intimate portrayal of a flawed man who never gave up.
Philadelphia Inquirer

There’s a certain romance to the tortured genius mythology, but Stewart O’Nan makes quick work of dispelling it in this beautifully written historical novel which follows Fitzgerald's stint as a screenwriter during the 1930s, captures that era of Hollywood well, offering juicy scenes with Humphrey Bogart, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and other Fitzgerald friends and hangers-on, while lending witty dialogue to his affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, a doomed romance that's worthy of a classic film.
Entertainment Weekly

O’Nan, an accomplished, award-winning writer who has clearly done his biographical homework, polishes this saga to a seductive sheen, populates it with persuasive incarnations of Dorothy Parker, Humphrey Bogart, Ernest Hemingway, and others, and takes us to a very dark place indeed.

[E]arnest but only fitfully interesting.... The book inadvertently illustrates the truth of Fitzgerald’s famous dictum: "There are no second acts in American lives."... The book is thoroughly researched, featuring a huge supporting cast of famous players...but it feels more like a television docudrama than a fully realized novel.
Publishers Weekly

F. Scott Fitzgerald's final years, when he worked unhappily as a Hollywood screenwriter.... Fitzgerald comes across as a haunting, multifaceted, sympathetic character.... The slide into drugs, alcoholism, and the heart disease that shortened his life is tragic to behold; Fitzgerald fans will mourn his loss all over again. —Reba Leiding, emeritus, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA
Library Journal

It would appear to be a daunting task to write a biographical novel of one of our most iconic writers, yet O’Nan avoids every pitfall.... O’Nan renders a heartbreaking portrait of an artist soldiering on in the face of personal and professional ruin.... O’Nan’s convincing characterization of a man burdened by guilt and struggling to hold onto his dignity is, at once, a moving testament to grace under pressure and an intimate look at legend.

[A] sympathetic portrayal of a troubled genius, a kind but deeply flawed man trying to stay on the wagon while keeping the peace between his unstable wife and their teenage daughter.... O'Nan has crafted an insightful glimpse into a sad period in Fitzgerald's life, as he fades into poverty, drunkenness and anonymity among a cast of notables, after his and Zelda's reign as America's literary golden couple and before his resurgence into universal acclaim.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Stewart O’Nan chooses to begin West of Sunset, not with Scott’s arrival in Hollywood, but with a meeting between Scott and Zelda. What does his story gain from this subtle and interesting choice?
2. O’Nan uses a variety of details to evoke the madness and absurdity of Hollywood culture. What images did you find most effective in this regard, and why?
3. What is the significance of the novel’s title, and how does that title bear upon the ensuing action?
4. Based on what you have read in West of Sunset, do you consider F. Scott Fitzgerald a brave man, a coward, or a bit of both? Explain your reaction.
5. Some have seen West of Sunset as, above all, a love story. If this is correct, who or what is the true object of Scott’s love: Zelda? Sheilah? Himself? Someone or something else? Discuss your answer.
6. O’Nan writes of Fitzgerald, "He was a poor boy from a rich neighborhood, a scholarship kid at boarding school, a Midwesterner in the East, an easterner out West" (pg. 208). Do you accept the idea that a Princeton man who is friends with Hemingway, Bogart, and Dorothy Parker can still claim to be an outsider? Why or why not?
7. Fitzgerald wonders whether he has mistaken oblivion for joy (pg. 166). How is it possible to confuse the two?
8. In West of Sunset, Fitzgerald, a superb novelist and sparkling writer of short stories, tries to make it as a screenwriter, an artistic milieu in which he seems desperately out of water. Why, apart from money, does he attempt this seemingly doomed transformation? Why might a writer who is so successful in one idiom fail so miserably in another?
9. The real Fitzgerald once wrote, "The two basic stories of all times are 'Cinderella' and 'Jack the Giant Killer'—the charm of women and the courage of men." Was he correct? Does O’Nan's novel undermine or confirm Fitzgerald’s statement?
10. In West of Sunset, Hemingway accuses Fitzgerald of betraying his gift. Is it his gift that Scott most significantly betrays, or someone or something else? What?
11. What do you think is Stewart O’Nan’s most penetrating insight into the life of a professional writer?
12. Compare Zelda and Sheilah. What does each woman represent in Fitzgerald’s life? Why does he seem to need them both?
13. Imagine that you are Scottie Fitzgerald. What would you most want from your parents that they are not giving you? Would there be anything you could do to try to get it?
14. Fitzgerald, a Midwesterner by birth, seems caught between the American East and the American West. What does each offer that the other denies him, and in which of the two places does he more naturally belong? Why?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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