Aside from a failed attempt at reading This Side of Paradise, I've loved everything else I've read by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I've not read a lot, a few short stories (am especially fond of Bernice Bobs Her Hair) and multiple reads of The Great Gatsby (alas in pre-blogging days), but now I can add his 1920 novella, May Day, to the list. For readers who are not fond of historical fiction and the 'padding' of details to give a sense of the period being written about, you can't get a more authentic feel for Jazz Age America than reading Fitzgerald's work. This is my favorite era to read about and part of my fascination of the Fitzgeralds, both Scott and Zelda, is their colorful and tumultuous relationship. Actually reading about them can be quite sad as they seem to epitomize the excesses of those years more than just about anyone else I can think of.
None of the characters in May Day are particularly likable or sympathetic, but that doesn't lessen the impact of the story. Set just after the end of WWI Fitzgerald juxtaposes several different characters, morally and financially bankrupt in some cases, unhappy and directionless in others making a statement on the political and social climate of the times. Two loose plots run parallel in the story, merging somewhat and playing one off the other.
The first, and main story, revolves around Gordon Sterrett who has come down in the world. A former Yale student not long returned to New York City from the war, he has heard an old classmate and friend is in town. Gordon has seen better days. He's dressed shabbily and isn't working, though he believes he has enough talent to be an illustrator if he could just buy the right materials. That's where the money is he tells his friend Philip Dean who obviously has few money worries. Silk shirts litter his hotel room and ties are draped over chairs. Philip Dean has a steady income even if it's only doled out by his parents. When Gorden hits him up for a loan, he's reluctant to give him any money despite being in a comfortable position to do so. For Gordon it's not just about buying art supplies as he's being blackmailed by a women he met.
Philip talks Gordon into going to a Yale party with him at Delmonico's where Gordon sees Edith Bradin, a debutante with whom he shared one romantic evening before he was shipped off to France. She's a woman he might have loved and maybe still does but, but she's so obviously out of his league now, she doesn't have time for him. Superficial at best she's all about appearances and looking out for herself. She leaves the party in order to visit her brother who works as a journalist just around the corner from Delmonico's.
Fitzgerald smoothly segues from one storyline to the next, introducing one character then another and pushing the plot along as it gains momentum. It's Henry Bradin's offices, the socialist newspaper where he works, where a pair of soldiers join in what is quickly turning into a riotous mass. It's May Day and angry words are hurled at the newspaper office and violence breaks out. The soldiers are working class and are portrayed as uneducated ruffians with few opportunities. Of the two storylines this latter is the weaker of the two, but it serves to offer another angle to the story and seems to hold up a mirror offering a reflection that's quite dark and contrasting to the lives of those who are perhaps rich in material goods but not in virtues.
This is a story with no winners and no happy ending. It's a night where rich and poor, affluent and disenfranchised clash and knock up against each other. It's an angry, booze-filled night with not an ounce of charity or compassion and Fitzgerald paints a rather desperate picture of everyone involved. It all comes back to Gordon Sterrett who, despite his privileged beginnings now has nothing and nothing to hope for. The jacket blurb calls Fitzgerald's plot relentless, and it is. It's a story that packs a punch and moved me to go and grab a book of short stories by Fitzgerald from my shelves that I hope to dip into this week. I feel like he must have written hundreds of short stories (he always seemed to be writing stories to make enough cash to get by on), but my collection only has a handful of them.
I want to read more of his work this year, maybe even give This Side of Paradise another go. I've also read Bartleby the Scrivener, but I'll save writing about that novella for another day. I've got my next pair of novellas on my reading pile and am planning on starting with the Baudelaire.