“All crowds have to howl.”
The first book in my self-imposed novella-a-day challenge was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel, May Day. This novel lacks a lot of the finesse that is so obvious in Gatsby, but I think it’s a lot more refined and readable than, say, This Side of Paradise, which I found too apologetic and juvenile. This skinny book is about postwar despair and the conflict between the rich, moneyed classes and those who have fallen below that level of luxury. The Roaring Twenties have just begun.
The first paragraph is nearly flawless:
There had been a war fought and won and the great city of the conquering people was crossed with triumphal arches and vivid with thrown flowers of white, red, and rose. All through the long spring days the returning soldiers marched up the chief highway behind the strum of drums and the joyous, resonant wind of the brasses, while merchants and clerks left their bickerings and figurings and, crowding to the windows, turned their white-bunched faces gravely upon the passing battalions.
Gawgeous! World War I soldiers have returned to a hostile world and among the ruins of the war, New York City rises like a phoenix from the ashes. “Never had there been such splendor in the great city…”
An interesting ensemble of characters populate this concentrated novella. There’s the main protagonist, Gordon Sterrett, a Yale man who finds himself in very dire financial straits after the war, and who calls upon his old friend, Philip Dean, for financial assistance. Dean is a privileged former soldier whose only thoughts concern parties, booze, women, and the next thrill. He’s the quintessential 20s man.
Then there’s Edith Bradin, Gordon’s former sweetheart, moved on but never quite forgotten. This is a novel about the past and present, what could have been, and the ghosts of our former selves. There’s an energy that runs throughout the novel, an anxiety about the future that each character touches upon but never fully grasps emotionally. Edith is eager to make a good match but is constantly feeling nostalgic about her glory days as the most sought-after girl among Yale men. She’s seeking something that has already vanished.
These characters are set against a backdrop of growing American luxury, but also a changing political landscape. Fitzgerald described his novella as illustrating a “general hysteria…that inaugurated the Jazz Age…” I think that’s a succinct and almost chilling description of a haunting novella. It really did feel like a subtle setup of all the themes that Fitzgerald revisits in his later work: luxury, despair, love, a changing world. I didn’t love any of the characters which sort of separated me from the novel, but the ending had me reeling, and pondering the effects of a grand despair.
Get your copy here! I would definitely recommend this book to any lover of modern literature or of Fitzgerald. It’s a must-read.