With The Great Gatsby—the first and only work by Fitzgerald most people read—we’re instructed, starting in high school and then ever after, that only one manuscript by the Minnesota-born author is deemed worth our time. And in Gatsby, there are indeed chunks of perfect writing—velvety stuccoed passages of pure prose poetry that make it seem like this author always had a goldmine at his disposal when other writers were lucky to have pyrite crumbs.
Sometimes these plush veins go on for pages, capturing details of human existence—the ways we all think, at some time or other, which we all recognize with an “aha, yes, I’ve been that way” internal exclamation—and where entire worlds register in the precise manner of how a finger touches a glass, or a pine cone dandles in a breeze. But if you want to experience Fitzgerald the stylistic daredevil, you need to turn to his stories, right from his earliest ones. Get thee to a good compilation, go.
“I have asked a lot of my emotions—120 stories,” Fitzgerald wrote near the end of his life. Clearly that number meant a lot to him, as it should have. A little chest-thumping pride, if you will, like he’d just sunk a three to finish off triple overtime.
You’ll note that he didn’t cite the total of his novels—he went to the short story form. You create an idea for a novel, you work that idea and its tributaries through the duration of the project. But to birth new characters afresh in their own native worlds—again and again and again and again—with new journeys, new arcs, and render those fictional composites in styles best befitting each creative undertaking, each formal work of art, is, as Fitzgerald implies, a daunting task. And one’s imagination. One’s energy. One’s ability to both regularly chop wood—doing the sweating and grunting of writing—and having meritorious fresh wood to chop, which the artist grows in thickets beyond the intellectual property lines of other people—forests of genius which, in Fitzgerald’s case, experienced nary a lick of flame, or what it meant to be thinned out by so much as a single sapling.
These characters are created, their stories told, and then new ones must take their place in what becomes an accession of narrative forms, each self-contained, but belonging to a single corpus. Nothing taxes your originality and imagination more. To do it well, that is. Our young man Mr. Fitzgerald, well before Gatsby’s publication in 1925, tended to write short stories like he was Indiana Jones. “Explore that? Hell yeah, boy!” There is something so cool about a writer who doesn’t do “can’t”—that is, if there’s a rule, they will not care about it, and if there’s a way you’re “supposed” to write, they will tell you to go to the devil.
One of Fitzgerald’s longest short stories (he called it a novelette) is “May Day.” It’s the perfect snapshot—or short film, really—of him in daring, inventive youth. It came out in the same year as his college bildungsroman This Side of Paradise, and was another college-based work, set on the first of May 1919.
We don’t get a lot of May Day works of art, but I’m glad we have this one, set in these early days of spring, after the rains and the lingering cold of winter. Easter may make us feel alive anew, and now we are ready for warmth, which can feel like it doubles for spiritual and emotional warmth.
Fitzgerald was in his early twenties when he wrote “May Day,” just past college age himself, not that he graduated from Princeton, the school he attended, which people usually aren’t aware of, thinking of Fitzgerald as Mr. College. His grades were terrible, classes could be restrictive for his writing, and he felt freer in student musical and literary productions.
For this story, we are in New York City, with a rich boy, and a not so rich boy. Philip Dean—who is referred to by his surname for much of the work—is at a hotel. He’s a trust funder. Cash galore. He’s hanging out in town to take a break from his life, and waiting to go to a shindig at a fancy hotel for his fellow Yale alums. You can totally imagine this guy’s parents having bribed his way to New Haven.
Gordon Sterrett—who, tellingly, is referred to by his first name in the story (he is meant to be the person we, as people, are on more familiar terms with)—turns up in the lobby, while Dean has a nice lie-in for himself. Gordon is in some trouble. He also went to Yale, and this disaffected young man got involved with a woman, at a time in life when he wants to die. He’s not planning anything—but when the spirit breaks, there is no cast with which it can be fit, no crutches that can prop it up and help it ambulate. He’s a photographer, but the artist kind.
Gordon has no money, and he has come to borrow some to pay off the woman he thinks—underline that word—is bribing him over some tawdry details of their affair. At first, Dean is happy to see this guy, because he can shoot the shit about the good old days and hook-ups in dorms, but when he realizes Gordon wants money, he becomes a supercilious dick who is going to make this guy work for it. As Dean looks Gordon over, the well-heeled man utters one of those quintessential Fitzgerald lines that captures perhaps the definitive theme of his work: “You seem to be sort of bankrupt—morally as well as financially.”
Fascinating delivery. For it is delivered as both how a character might say those words—a peremptory kind of character—and an authorial extension, one of those rare moments of “look, this is both the person in the story talking and this external voice-box that’s going to inform a ton of my fiction, so write this one down.” People think Fitzgerald focused a lot on money and the loss of it—being flush with green and then dissolute. He didn’t. He wrote about what might happen to you—and what, if anything, you can do about it—when your character cracks and the best bits of you leak out.
Dean and Gordon head for a party. At this party will be Edith Bradin, whom Gordon presumed was the love of his life. We have a lot going on here, don’t we? But we are just starting! At the same time, Fitzgerald introduces a plot involving two ex-Army men, Kay and Rose, with no prospects of work, no friends, and not much to do. Manhattan is lousy with soldiers after the war, and this duo starts banging around town looking for booze. Kay has a brother at a hotel who he thinks can get them some. He asks a waiter if he knows this brother, and gets a quizzical look. “’His name is Kay,’ annotated Rose.”
That’s what Fitzgerald does—he picks the word that no one other writer would ever use, and it as if that word is bang on the #1 word that it had to be. You can’t teach this. To paraphrase Fitzgerald, it’s like being tall or having blue eyes or a baritone voice; you’re born with it, or you’re not. The soldiers end up, a couple of times during the day, joining a mob that is marching through the streets—or drunkenly stumbling—in search of Socialists to beat up. Someone heard someone proselytizing on a street corner, and this attempted interflow of ideas was not what soldiers who had been bayoneted in trenches for American democracy wished to hear.
The plots come together when Kay and Rose end up at the hotel where the big Yale shindig is taking place. Gordon is drunk. He sees Edith, and Fitzgerald winds us up for what seems like it’s going to be a sort of meet cute story, albeit the redux variety—take 2, for these young lovers. She wants it to work, but she’s not dealing with him, she’s dealing with an idea. Crucial way to go wrong with people. One needs to deal with the person, not the idea of what the two can be together. But there is not some giant clash, not some well-phrased epiphany that marks their final parting. He’s a wreck, barely hanging on, and she can’t rouse him, so she doubts herself, then she’s annoyed, then she’s bored. “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.”
You know that’s how it is. I know that’s how it is. Someone else is going to be right where you were. If you took an iron, heated it as hot as you could, shaved it into a spike, and stuck it into your heart, it would feel like that revelation. She leaves, and heads around the corner to visit her Socialist newspaper-running brother at his office. The mob, as you may have guessed, turns up, breaks down the door. This is not going to end well for one of the two ex-Army men who had begun their day just looking to get their drink on. Meanwhile, we’ve met the girl, Jewel, whom Gordon had described in unfavorable terms to Dean, and it turns out she’s sweet and wonderful and not trying to blackmail him at all. She simply loves him. Or, if it’s not love, she cares for him and seeks to shield him—from parts of himself.
You might find it reassuring to know that even 100 years ago, after these kinds of big booze-ups, everyone ends up at some breakfast joint. Dean is there, drunk out of his mind, and having refused Gordon his loan—which you knew was coming the entire time—and so are Jewel and Gordon. It’s a mess, with people doing and saying things with that special brand of assholism owned and operated by the rich and entitled.
Up until a little after this point, I buy everything in this story. When you have an ambitious plot, you risk more. For instance, if you look at the garbage in most literary magazines now, you’ll see no stories. You’ll encounter a scene, a vignette. When you do less, less can go wrong. Consequently, when someone does more, for people who always look for less, there’s a tendency to overstrain to find gaffes. The extended plot is like the extended sentence: Only a virtuosic writer—with a virtuosic soul—can pull them off. But it’s clear that Fitzgerald had no idea how to end this story. Divergent threads had intertwined at other places throughout, but once the boot was fully laced, he he no way to tie the crowning knot. So he settles for melodrama: Gordon goes to a dive hotel room with a revolver he’d bought at a sporting goods store and blows his brains out.
In the bit about the 120 stories that he wrote, Fitzgerald went on to say that he was able to do this not because of his blood, or his seed, as in his essence, but, rather, on account of the “extra” that he had. He feared that this something extra had left him in the end. He was wrong there. Maybe a trip back to May Day 1919, as his imagination had conceived it, might have been the tonic he needed, the tonic left on the nightstand bureau by Gordon Sterrett.