There is a joyous mood as the newly-demobilized troops crowd into town. Gordon Sterrett, a returned soldier who is down on his luck, visits an old college friend, Philip Dean, at the Biltmore Hotel. They discuss Sterrett’s former girlfriend, Edith Bradin, and the fact that she is in town. Sterrett asks Dean for money. He has lost his job and is being blackmailed by a girl called Jewel Hudson. Dean does not even want to hear the story: “He felt vaguely that he was being unfairly saddled with responsibility.” Sterrett plans to make money as an artist but needs $300 to buy off the girl before he can set himself up. Dean is distant and judgmental, telling Sterrett he appears “bankrupt – morally as well as financially.”
Dean is planning to go to a Yale fraternity dance, and to divert the conversation from the vulgar subject of money, he invites Sterrett to breakfast with him. Sterrett agrees, in the hope that he can persuade Dean to lend him the money. Dean tosses Sterrett $5, and “in that instant they suddenly and definitely hated each other.”
The men dine together. Dean reveals he will not lend Sterrett the money, saying he “doesn’t feel he ought to." He gives Sterrett another $75 and says they will see each other at the dance.
There is a change of scene to Sixth Avenue. Carrol Key and Gus Rose are demobilized soldiers, “ugly and ill-nourished”. They have no direction and are overwhelmed with the freedom they have been given. They hear a Jewish man decrying the effects of the war. He is beaten to the ground. A mob begins to amass, heading for Tenth Street. Key and Rose follow the crowd, then decide to track down Key’s brother – a waiter at Delmonico’s. They find George Key and ask him to get the men some alcohol. He deposits Key and Rose in a storeroom, next to the function room set up for the Gamma Psi dance.
Edith is irritated by her escort, Peter Himmel. He ungraciously tried to put his arm around her, then touched her newly styled hair with his elbow. She reminisces about Gordon Sterrett, and finds herself “falling in love with her recollection” of him. She plans what she will say that evening. Edith has decided that she is “a little tired” and therefore ready to get married.
When she sees Sterrett at the dance, Edith feels an “unutterable horror.” She is appalled at his weak and unkempt state. “Revulsion seized her, followed by a faint, surprising boredom.”
Meanwhile, the spurned Peter Himmel drinks himself out of his embarrassment. He sees Key and Rose, who have emerged from the storeroom to steal bottles from the function room. He invites them to stay and they drink together – toasting to the "greatest race in the world! We’re all Americuns!”
Edith is unhappy to find Himmel drunk, and asks another “stag” (man without a date) to take her home. She decides instead to visit her brother Henry at his newspaper office. As she leaves the dance, she passes Jewel Hudson asking a waiter (Key’s brother) to get Sterrett.
Sterrett appears, apologizing that he could not raise the money Jewel wanted. It seems the money was not really her priority. He tells her he is ill and she takes him away.
Edith reaches the paper offices and sees her brother Harry with his colleague Bartholomew. Bartholomew explains about the unrest across the city; “The soldiers don’t know what they want, or what they hate, or what they like.” The soldier mob storms the newspaper offices accusing the journalists of being traitors. The police arrive as one of the soldiers, later identified as Key, is pushed out of the window. Henry’s leg is broken in the chaos.
The location changes to Child’s restaurant where dine a crowd of wealthy revelers from the Gamma Psi dance. There would be a very different clientele in this establishment four hours later. Rose mourns the death of Key.
Sterrett and Dean meet up in the restaurant. Sterrett is with Jewel and Dean goes over to remonstrate with him. Jewel leads Sterrett away. Himmel and Dean threaten a waiter and Himmel throws food until he is ejected from Childs’. The customers are diverted from his scene by the breaking dawn.
“Mr. In and Mr. Out,” otherwise known as Dean and Himmel, set off on a spree of “breakfast and liquor.” The steal the cloakroom door signs from Delmonico’s and put them over their shirts. At the Commodore, they demand champagne and a ham sandwich. They are served but the check is brought swiftly and they move on to the Biltmore. They pass Edith, whose escort moves them out of the way, and a soldier (possibly Rose) is apprehended for breaking Henry’s leg at the newspaper office.
In a small Sixth Avenue hotel, Sterrett wakes drunkenly to the realization that he is “irrevocably married” to Jewel Hudson. He leaves the hotel for his rooms on East Street, buys a revolver on the way and shoots himself in his room, leaning over his drawing materials.
The setting of the story is taken from the May Day riots of 1919 in Ohio, which resulted in two deaths and over one hundred arrests. The nature of the riot was political: a dispute arose over the use of the Socialist flag by some protesters. The event was part of the emergence of the fear of Communist infiltration which was to shadow the next few decades of American history.
The three individual stories dovetail into each other to present a scene across the city of New York: the story of Sterrett, the story of the newspaper offices, and the story of Key and Rose. Each scene links carefully with the next, showing in the imaginative skill of the author the careful construction of a script writer, who meshes together disparate scenes to make a cohesive whole. We see across the democratic whole of American society, and are shown the lowest of each class at the hands of the great leveler: alcohol.
George Sterrett is down on his luck. Sadly, in the circles that he moves, this is a fatal condition. Those around him, who would have supported him in his younger, happier, more prosperous times, are revolted, disgusted or just plain bored with him. Deans cannot bring himself to impinge on his own frivolity to support Sterrett’s pathetic demands. It is with irony that he declares Sterrett “morally bankrupt” as he himself is later found disturbing the peace and stealing hotel property.
Edith is a woman in love with the image of Sterrett, presumably as she was endeared to the image of Peter Himmel. Reality is too much for her: she is irritated when Himmel touches her hair, or tries to get close to her. She typifies the idealistic modern woman who seeks perfection and is repelled by anything less.
Rose and Key are seen as lowlifes: Fitzgerald uses the simile of “driftwood” cast out on a sea of uncertainty to express their rootless existence. Death is foreshadowed in the line “they would be tossed as driftwood to their deaths”. The encounter between Rose, Key and Himmel is symbolic in that they toast together being “Americuns.” It is only within the context of alcohol that these three would ever have met or spoken: they would soon go their separate ways. Each of them would cause trouble, but whileHimmel’s activities would be seen as larking, Key and Rose would be menacing.
When the mob storms the newspaper offices their desperation, fear, and anger is evident. They are looking for someone to blame, someone to fight now the war is over. Violence is what they know and understand. It is how they communicate.
Sterrett’s death is tragic in its inevitability. He could have been destroyed by alcohol, illness, Jewel’s wrath or Deans’ scorn. It is with his own hand that he finally takes some control back, only to engineer his own end. He is reminiscent of many of Fitzgerald's washed-up protagonists. Parallels can be drawn with Mr. Trimble from “The Lost Decade” and Charlie Wales from “Babylon Revisited.”