Updated on August 5, 2015
53. ‘May Day’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The story opens with two college friends – Gordon Sterrett and Philip Dean – reunited after years apart. Since they knew each other, their fortunes have gone in very different directions: Sterrett is down on his luck, poor and being sucked dry by a woman who he desperately wants to get away from. Dean, on the other hand, is prosperous and wealthy. In the first chapter we see Sterrett asking Dean for money. The latter reluctantly agrees and, in the same moment, each comes to the unspoken conclusion that they hate each other.
‘May Day’ is set against the backdrop of American soldiers returning from the war and is mostly set over the course of one night in New York. Conflict abroad brings anguish and disillusionment to New York’s easy, fashionable circles and there is a sense of tension that bubbles under the surface of every scene.
The pair of men introduced at the beginning of the story, is mirrored by the pair of leading women: there is the young. beautiful and faintly bored Edith (who both men have their eye on), contrasted with the overly made-up and clingy Jewel Hudson (who neither is interested in). Each of the main characters, it seems, is complemented by their opposite. The beauties have their drab counterparts, the passionate lovers have their colder rivals.
Another duo – Carrol Key and Gus Rose – form the story’s second plot. They have been discharged from the army and are wandering the streets looking for, firstly, alcohol and, secondly, a new leader to follow. As the night wears on they find themselves in the same hotel as the young partygoers (Sterrett, Dean and Edith amongst them) and, eventually, the two separate plots collide, violently.
I loved how, at the beginning, the narrative voice is intimately acquainted with Gordon Sterrett’s inner thoughts, but by the end of the book we are left to piece together what happens to him by his encounters with others. He begins as one of the most sharply drawn characters, who gradually fades into obscurity. Naturally, Fitzgerald’s beautifully descriptive language perfectly conjures the characters’ simultaneous feelings of upheaval and ennui. As for the ending: it is certainly shocking, especially given the depth of sympathy the reader has built up for a character they have only known for a short time.
“Love is fragile – she was thinking – but perhaps the pieces are saved, the things that hovered on lips, that might have been said. The new love words, the tendernesses learned, are treasured up for the next lover.”
I realised, within a page or two, that I’d read this story before – it was part of Fitzgerald’s ‘Flappers and Philosophers‘ collection, which I read in early 2012 – but it was interesting to read it again as a standalone book.
This is the second novella from Melville House’s subscription series.
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