May first, 1919. New York City. The first World War has ended. Soldiers of all ranks are returning home via a stop in the big city. Sons of privilege, Yale students all, hold a party in a hotel not too far from a socialist workers printshop and hall. Chaos ensues.
Our two main characters, former college pals, meet before the big night. Gordon and Phillip. Gordon has arrived with a plan to ask Phillip for a loan of 300 dollars, enough to pay his rent and tide him over until he can set himself up as a commercial artist. And there’s a girl he has to get away from, too. Phillip is happy to see Gordon, old Gordy, until the question of money comes up. Throughout May Day the one thing the rich hate most is someone earnest asking them for money, especially someone they once saw as one of their own.
Phillip refuses the loan, but Gordy goes to the big party anyway. There he drinks too much, confesses his penury to one beautiful woman who then withdraws from him and ends up marrying the poor woman he was trying to escape. Meanwhile, the less moneyed soldiers who crash the party end up gathering a crowd of anti-communist fellow travelers who march on the nearby socialist workers hall intent on smashing their printing presses.
In the end, remember “May Contain Spoilers”, one of the soldiers dies falling out a window, pushed out by the angry, anti-communist crowd, and Gordy, who has drunkenly married the wrong woman after failing to gain any money from his former friends, puts a bullet in his head.
I’m not sure what to make of this novella. I can see that the people in F. Scott Fitzgerald stories are not very nice people. Whether they have money or not, they are so lost in class prejudices and pretensions that they fail to save even themselves from their actions all the while remaining more-or-less oblivious to what they are doing to those around them. That is probably the point here, as it was in The Great Gatsby.
The party sections in May Day are excellent. In spite of how shallow everyone is, you get a very clear sense of why this generation was so attractive to so many people. They looked like so much fun–cocktails, dancing, music, laughter and all that.
I’m not going to flat out say that May Day is misogynist in its portrayal, or non-portrayal, of women as this is a book about men. The women in it are very minor players. But that is a choice the author made. Had Fitzgerald taken the time to develop the women in this story it would have ended up with much more to say, obviously.
There are two main women in the story: the beautiful Edith whom Gordy drunkenly pins his hopes on and Jewel whom he disastrously wakes up married to the morning after the party. While Edith is largely a type, not a Madonna but a beautiful goddess none-the-less, she is a memorable character and someone many readers would admire. Jewel, the whore in this dichotomy, never gets a chance. We only see her through Gordy, but she had a story to tell, too. Probably a much more interesting one than the man she married had.
I guess I can take the successes of May Day, the party scene, the portrayal of differeing classes clashing, but I can help but wonder how much better the novella would have been if it had offered as much depth of portrayal to its women characters as well.