For a story so good, "May Day" is remarkably bad. Fitzgerald acknowledges its most flagrant fault in his Preface to Tales of the Jazz Age. After stating that the story is based upon three unrelated events, he concludes that he tried "unsuccessfully . . . to weave them into a pattern" (viii). Furthermore, as Richard D. Lehan notes, the action is "badly motivated" and "unconvincing and melodramatic" (84-85). Even the generally brilliant writing often strains too hard after cleverness and sometimes merits complaints about its coarseness and intrusive irony (Tuttleton 191; Sklar 78). Yet if Henry Dan Piper goes farther than most critics when he extols it as Fitzgerald's finest work before The Great Gatsby (69-71), the consensus is that "May Day" is one of his better efforts. Both Matthew J. Bruccoli (141) and Kenneth Eble (56) rank it among his very best stories. Sergio Perosa finds the technique "masterful" (32). Even those who rate it lower invariably place it above numerous other stories with more plausible events and more compact structures.
Many of the flaws of "May Day" result from its being a combination of incongruous elements. Part traditional fiction and part avant-garde, it combines plot devices characteristic of Fitzgerald's early Saturday Evening Post stories with themes of the less popular pieces that appeared in The Smart Set. It also juxtaposes naturalism and satire. It has some of the breadth of the novel it was originally to have been and the concentration of the successful short story. It is alternately funny and sad, ludicrous and disturbing—a discordant piece that captures the silliness and pathos, the banality and vitality of the Jazz Age, whose opening it heralds and dramatizes. As in a Charles Ives symphony, where hymn tunes collide with passages from Beethoven, the effect is simultaneously crude and stimulating. Faults become inseparable from virtues, and the lack of synthesis is part of the message.
Fitzgerald should not have been surprised when The Saturday Evening Post rejected "May Day."1 Few stories would seem less likely to have appealed to the magazine's morally conservative, probusiness editor, George Horace Lorimer. After all, it opens with a parody of the Bible and ends with a suicide. In between are riots, debauchery, a sordid liaison, and a monstrous marriage. One character gets his leg broken; another is shoved from a window to his death. Throughout nearly [End Page 207] everyone is intoxicated, as Fitzgerald offers mordant comments on rich and poor, reactionaries and radicals.
Such fare was patently closer to the tastes of H. L. Mencken, the iconoclastic editor of The Smart Set, who published the story in July 1920 after it had been spurned by editors of all the large-circulation magazines (Bruccoli 141). Yet in certain respects "May Day" is closer to the six Fitzgerald stories the Post published in 1920 than to most of his other works that appeared in The Smart Set.2 Not only is it more plotted than The Smart Set pieces usually are, but the narrative pivots about the central device of the Post stories, the mismatched couple—a congenial subject, no doubt, because of Fitzgerald's difficulties at the time with Zelda. Sometimes the obstacle—as in "Myra Meets His Family," "Head and Shoulders," and "The Offshore Pirate"—is a disparity in wealth or social status. In "The Camel's Back" the impediment is temperamental incompatibility. In "The Ice Palace" different regional backgrounds divide the pair. In the sixth Post story, "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," the heroine's small-town provinciality brings her into conflict with both male and female members of the country-club set in a large midwestern city.
In "May Day," therefore, Gordon Sterrett, trapped in a relationship with a proletarian Circe, Jewel Hudson, has the kind of problem that confronts the heroes of the early Post fiction. So, too, does Peter Himmel, who escorts Gordon's old flame, Edith Bradin, to a fraternity dance at Delmonico's Restaurant in New York, only to be rebuffed by her before he sets off on a binge with another Yale man, Phil Dean. The rejection and the subsequent bacchanalian capers are reminiscent of events in "The Camel...