March is National Reading Month. To that end, I will read so much and post so often you will be sick of me by April 1.
A new book by Stewart O’Nan is generally reason to celebrate. For my money, he’s one of the best chroniclers of the lives of regular people trying to muddle through when life doesn’t go as planned.
Sometimes it’s big things that go wrong: In “Songs for the Missing” a family copes with the disappearance and probable murder of their teenage daughter, In “The Good Wife,” a woman passes decades waiting for her husband to get out of prison. In other novels, it’s smaller things: “Last Night at the Lobster,” shows the effects of the closing of a Red Lobster on its employees and regular customers. (This is one of my favorite novels, check it out.)
O’Nan treats all his characters and all their situations with dignity, even when, as in “Last Night at the Lobster,” the stakes aren’t life and death, and the situation could easily have been mined for comic potential.
His new novel, “West of Sunset,” travels the same tragic paths, but with bigger-than-life personalities: F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife, Zelda, and his lover Sheilah Graham. I expected a lot: One great American writer chronicling another. What could go wrong? Yet the sum of the novel is less than its parts.
The story begins in 1937, when Scott sells his soul to the Hollywood devil to pay for Zelda’s treatment in the booby hatch and their daughter Scottie’s tuition. Scott is broken and broke and a fish out of water. There’s no way for this to go but bad.
Then he meets Sheilah Graham, a newspaper columnist who would be his lover. He is first attracted to her because he sees something in her that reminds him of the young Zelda. But she is not Zelda, she’s more driven and independent than any other woman he’s known. And Scott is not the man he was. He doesn’t understand Hollywood. He is fighting only half-heartedly to stay sober. His dissipated charms wear thin, and because she has less invested in him than Zelda did, Sheilah holds him accountable when he falls off the wagon.
The novel is bleak with only brief sparks of humor provided by the banter of minor characters Dorothy Parker, her husband Alan Campbell, Humphrey Bogart and other famous names who pop in and out of the narrative.
The most honest relationship is that of Scott and his daughter, Scottie, whose devotion to him often puts him in the middle of Scottie’s relationship with Zelda. Because Zelda is so unpredictable, Scott is always on edge, trying to come to a decision about his ambivalence over her. He wants Zelda back, but the Zelda he sees now is not the one he fell in love with. He mourns that as he tries to help her and at the same time break free of her. Sheilah is no walk in the park either. She’s demanding and petty (she fights with Scott because he won’t divorce Zelda, yet she has secrets of her own). Scott walks a tight rope between these women and falls a lot. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating, but not in a good way.
O’Nan shies away from direct exchanges between Scott and the women in his life, contenting himself with paraphrasing their arguments. That’s disappointing because when he does write dialogue, the characters and scenes breathe with humanity that makes a reader feel the scope of the tragedy that’s being performed.
Sadly, like Scott’s late-inning dedication to his newest novel, it’s too little too late. “West of Sunset” dies because of its irregular heartbeat.