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!

“The Ice Palace” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Is it actually a thing to say that the world can be divided into Hemingway people and Fitzgerald people, or is it just something I’ve thought long enough that I think it’s a thing? Anyway, I believe this is at least as valid as the Beatles/Elvis bifurcation (or Beatles/Stones). I’ve always fallen on the Hemingway side, and didn’t particularly care for The Great Gatsby when I read it in high school (I liked slightly better The Beautiful and Damned). But I’ve never stopped hearing people rave about Fitzgerald and especially Gatsby, and I didn’t remember him that well, so I’ve thought for a while about re-reading it.

I haven’t done that, but I did read a couple of his short stories, “The Ice Palace” and “Babylon Revisited.” The latter was good, and I liked it an above-average amount. “The Ice Palace” was pretty much as I’d remembered Fitzgerald, as just not quite hitting the right notes for me, though I did enjoy it in its own way too.

It’s the story of Sally Carrol Happer (that’s “Sally Carrol,” not just “Sally”) of Tarleton, Georgia and her Yankee beau, Harry Bellamy. It opens on a languid, Southern September afternoon, with Sally Carrol about to be taken out swimming by a male of her Southern leisure-set species:

Up in her bedroom window Sally Carrol Happer rested her nineteen-year-old chin on a fifty-two-year-old sill and watched Clark Darrow’s ancient Ford turn the corner. The car was hot—being partly metallic it retained all the heat it absorbed or evolved—and Clark Darrow sitting bolt upright at the wheel wore a pained, strained expression as though he considered himself a spare part, and rather likely to break.

I don’t know. I can’t articulate why, but I’m not loving it—the part about the chin and the sill, and the business about retaining “all the heat it absorbed or evolved” because it was “partly metallic.” And then Clark Darrow seems fine, not pained or strained, and says he’s “mighty fine.” The pained and strained part isn’t until later, when he confronts Sally Carrol about her relationship with the Northerner: “‘Don’t marry a Yankee, Sally Carrol. We need you round here.'”

Sally Carrol has made up her mind, though, because Southern men are “ineffectual and sad,” “failures,” “living in the past.” When Harry comes to settle their engagement, she takes him walking through a cemetery full of confederate dead and Old Southerners, whose graves are “dusty-gray and mouldy for the fifties; quaintly carved with flowers and jars for the seventies; ornate and hideous for the nineties, with fat marble cherubs lying in sodden sleep on stone pillows, and great impossible growths of nameless granite flowers,” where they settle on a date of March for the wedding, and a visit for Sally to the North in January, when there will be a winter carnival. “‘Will I be cold, Harry?’ she asked suddenly.”

She is cold, before she even gets off the train. She finds herself surrounded by cold Northerners, fair and Nordic-looking, and very foreign. She doesn’t enjoy herself at parties and dances, finds the men too inhibited, and only hits it off with an English professor who describes the locals as “Ibsenesque” and talks about Swedish suicide rates.

So, the ice palace of the North. There is an actual ice palace too; it’s part of the winter carnival. Harry and Sally Carrol go there together, after she already knows she’s not hitting it off with this climate and this people, and she gets lost in a labyrinth and has a bad time of it.

As a story of North and South, this is not what you would call mind-blowing, but completely serviceable, and I’m up for that kind of story for sure. What was strange, though, was the foreignness of the North here. Sally Carrol’s Georgia is exactly what I would expect: hot, lazy, leisurely, morose, sedate, antique. When someone asks her if she’s ever been to the North before she answers that she’s spent two Julys in Asheville. But Harry Bellamy, the “Yankee,” is from the “Northwest”—one can only assume Minnesota or similar. So part of his foreignness to her is that his is “‘a three-generation town. Everybody has a father, and about half of us have grandfathers. Back of that we don’t go.'” The professor has been “imported” from back East. Nothing in the Bellamy’s house seems very old, only expensive.

Stranger still was seeing the winter from Sally Carrol’s perspective. Fitzgerald describes a “powdery wraith of loose snow,” “a dark, ominous tent that draped in the tops of the streets and was in reality a vast approaching army of snowflakes,” “tombing heaps of sleet.” Her flannel cap is “complicated” while her Southern sunbonnet was simply “floppidy.” The labyrinth in the ice palace is “like a damp vault connecting empty tombs,” with “half-slippery, half-sticky walls” down which “she felt things creeping, damp souls that haunted this palace, this town, this North.” Talking to Roger Patton, the professor:

“I saw you look out the window a minute ago—and shiver.”

“Just my imagination,” laughed Sally Carrol. “I’m used to havin’ everythin’ quiet outside, an’ sometimes I look out an’ see a flurry of snow, an’ it’s just as if somethin’ dead was movin’.”

I was so surprised by this ghostliness direction. To think of the clean, cold winter this way, when it’s the hot, muggy South that teems with crawling things and flying things—to think that a crisp flurry of cold powder could be more creepy than Sally Carrol’s favorite cemetery…I mean I suppose coldness goes with death. But this was sort of a surprising and different direction for me.

Anyway, Clark Darrow is right all along, when he tells Sally Carrol that she “couldn’t” love a Yankee, because “‘He’d be a lot different from us, every way.'”