Stewart O'Nan's greatest gift as a writer is his ability to work in miniature. His greatest novel, Last Night at the Lobster, is nothing more than the story of the final day of a failed Red Lobster restaurant. With absolutely no gimmicks or sentimentality, O'Nan gave the staff and operations of a backwater chain restaurant outpost the same care and attention that, say, Jonathan Franzen bestows upon terrible suburban American families, and the results are riveting. His novel The Odds, about a married couple trying to give their dying marriage one more shot by taking a Valentine's Day trip to Niagara Falls, is similarly small in scope, a quiet story about an ordinary couple.
His newest novel, West of Sunset (Viking, $27.95), represents a departure from that formula. It's a novel about the last days of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who is about as far away from an average restaurant manager as you can get. Setting aside the fact that writing a novel about the author of The Great Gatsby is pretty gutsy, O'Nan also writes about Hollywood in the late '30s, when legendary figures like Humphrey Bogart and Dorothy Parker were holding court in bars around the city.
In a phone interview, O'Nan admits that Fitzgerald was a "great challenge" as a character, but he doesn't see him as very different from Manny DeLeon, the protagonist of Last Night at the Lobster. They both feel "a little bit alone," and both their livelihoods are at stake. By the late '30s, Fitzgerald's drinking problem was out of control, he wasn't able to sell fiction anymore, and he took a job in Hollywood as a screenwriter because the money was too good to resist, even though he hated the continual interference that was part of the job. (To this day, "writers are the bottom rung" in Hollywood, O'Nan explains.)
O'Nan says it took "50 or 60 pages" to feel comfortable with Fitzgerald as a character, and even now, "there's certainly a worry that the reader is going to have their own experience of him" that will interfere with their enjoyment of the book. An aura of legend already surrounds Fitzgerald and other characters in Sunset, and "if Dorothy Parker isn't funny," or if Humphrey Bogart "doesn't sound like Bogie," O'Nan knows the reader isn't likely to continue reading.
Fitzgerald's work didn't appeal to O'Nan until later in life. ("I come from an engineering background," he says, apologetically.) Now he's a fan of all Fitzgerald's work, especially Tender Is the Night, but the deep cuts, too—stories like "The Rich Boy" and "Winter Dreams," which are "always concerned with the outsider looking in on success." The truth about Fitzgerald as an artist is very different than the one we all learn in high-school English; though we see Fitzgerald "as this great tragedy," and though Gatsby has practically become an American myth, O'Nan insists Fitzgerald is "at heart a comic writer."
Narratives about alcoholics—especially narratives based in reality like Sunset—are difficult to write, because they're generally stories of tightly repeated patterns and disappointment. Addiction narratives offer no change, and plenty of frustration. The alcoholic gets a job, the alcoholic swears to do better, the alcoholic gets violently drunk and self-destructs, the alcoholic starts over again. O'Nan admits such stories "can be a little bit circular, but in terms of Fitzgerald," he decided "to not focus on alcoholism as a main thread." Instead, it's about Fitzgerald finding his art again and "in a weird way, taking care of his responsibilities." As Sunset opens, Fitzgerald takes the offer to write screenplays because he's in debt—he needs to pay tuition for his daughter, Scottie, and his wife, Zelda, has been institutionalized for years. At the same time, he falls for a young woman—one with an eerie resemblance to Zelda before insanity and motherhood and time ground her down. Fitzgerald was "always falling in love," O'Nan says, with the tone you reserve for a slightly disappointing uncle. "Always in trouble and always in love."
In Sunset, as in life, Fitzgerald's story becomes far more complex and rewarding with the arrival of Zelda. She appears infrequently in the book (Fitzgerald rarely makes it back east) but when she does, Fitzgerald changes entirely, becoming kinder, sadder. Though he's lost all romantic feeling for her, he could sooner live without his own heart than say good-bye to her forever. O'Nan says Zelda displayed immense talent early on, especially in pieces she wrote jointly with Scott, but "by the time my story begins, she's already been broken" by the "horrible" treatment she received in the institution (though she "was probably treated better than the average person at the time"). Scottie and Zelda and Scott exchanged an enormous number of letters—"Their emotions are documented in a way that no other person in the history of time has been documented," O'Nan says—and Zelda's correspondence helped him find her dignity.
After months of burying himself in the works of Fitzgerald, O'Nan thinks he's going to have a hard time shaking the author off. "I'll keep my Fitzgerald obsession for a while," he says. For his 1998 novel The Speed Queen, O'Nan immersed himself into muscle car culture, going so far as to buy one for the sake of research.
"I still have the goddamned muscle car," he says.