May Day by F. Scott Fitzgerald

May Day is officially the first book in the Art of the Novella series I have disliked. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since I’m also probably the only person ever who didn’t like The Great Gatsby (which I should re-read) and have thus never counted myself a Fitzgerald fan.

To begin with, I often don’t like his prose. When I did read a few Fitzgerald stories sometime in the past few years, this didn’t strike me, but here, in May Day, it seems positively effete. Perhaps it is just an artifact of his always wanting to discuss decadence, but I often end up seeing him as decadent. Does he simply fall into the vapidity of Edith when he decides to describe her, or is that Fitzgerald’s problem too?

Ultimately, vapidity is my main complaint about this novella. It tells the story of two connected happenings on the night of May 1, 1919, as New York City is celebrating the end of the war. First, there’s the Kappa Gamma Psi dance at Delmonico’s in midtown. All the finest young men and ladies of the land, including Edith, will get together, get drunk, and get a little bit stupid. The second happening is a mob attacking a Red newspaper with offices around the corner—and at which Edith’s older brother works.

The mob is further connected with the Delmonico’s crowd through Gus Rose and Carroll Key, two recently demobbed soldiers who steal some liquor from the Delmonico’s party before helping to break Edith’s brother’s leg (Rose) and fall out a window (Key). These two are introduced at the beginning of the third chapter as “two human beings [coming] out of a cheap restaurant in Sixth Avenue,” and I found this very revealing. Rose and Key are not persons, but human beings—they have the same DNA as you and I, but that’s all. They’re empty, both of knowledge and of any desire other than the gratification of their basest desires. And it’s not because they don’t have money. Edith and all her men friends might have money and champagne and silks and furs, but they’re just as empty as Rose and Key, just as vapid and vacuous.

Part of my problem with Fitzgerald is that I’m just not sure how much less so he is—or maybe he is, and he embraces is, and the point is that we all are. But that seems like a cop-out, and besides, the point in May Day appears to be the contrast between these two groups. Fitzgerald may disdain the working girls who congregate at lunch time on Fifth and Fourty-Fourth, but it seems he likes little better than to describe what they’re there for:

The wealthy, happy sun glittered in transient gold through the thick windows of the smart shops, lighting upon mesh bags and purses and strings of pearls in gray velvet cases; upon gaudy feather fans of many colors; upon the laces and silks of expensive dresses; upon the bad paintings and the fine period furniture in the elaborate show rooms of interior decorators.

The man simply never met an adjective he didn’t like. Why is he driving me to ridiculous pronouncements on avoiding adjectives? “Gaudy” appears more than once in the novella, and in a work this length twice is surely too many times. Mesh bags are also mentioned at least three times. I make no effort to count the silks and laces and coiffures and beauty. But they’re there, and Fitzgerald lovers will probably have a much better time here than I did. Now, persuade me!

6 comments to May Day by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  • I had something like your reaction here to Tender is the Night when I read it in college. I don’t actually think it’s vapid, but I rapidly became impatient and slightly sick-feeling with the sensation of simultaneous surfeit and emptiness. Honestly I do want to give that book and Fitzgerald in general another try at some point; I had multiple family emergencies at the time and the “poor little rich” characters just rubbed me the wrong way. That said, I do get where you’re coming from.

  • No persuasion from me; I like the idea of Fitzgerald and would like to read him with pleasure, but vapid is a great word. I’ve used slight before, classic style over substance.

  • Wow, not the reaction I was expecting! But I’m feeling very reassured now. Like Emily, I became impatient pretty fast and there was some eye-rolling involved, even though I really wanted to find here what I’d been missing. Maybe next time around with Gatsby…someday.

  • MJ

    Yeah, I didn’t like Gatsby, either. I’ve got a book of his short stories on my shelf that’s been staring at me for oh, about 10 years now. Every time I pick it up to give it a try, I just can’t. It doesn’t look like I’ll be reading May Day anytime soon, either.

  • We both disliked this one but for different reasons I think. I view some of the conflict you sense here as Fitzgerald’s working through his own sense of place, the conflict between where he came from and where he ended up. Always conscious that his life was a bit of a masquerade, something he (usually) conveys well into his characters.

  • Frances—Yes, I kind of suspected as much. And having read your post as well, I won’t say I’m raring to go with Gatsby again, but I’m definitely interested.