Jim Powell is defined as a “Jelly-bean": that is “one who spends his life conjugating the verb “to idle.'" Powell is born into middle-class society but after his father died in a drunken brawl Powell became a grocery delivery boy. He is humiliated at his third social event by the whispers about his job, and this causes Powell to give up on polite society and the trappings of social advancement. Powell chooses to associate with the seamier side of life, gambling and “listening to spicy tales of all the shootings that had occurred in the surrounding country.”
Powell fought in the war, returned, and met up with an old school friend, Clark Darrow. The two men moved in very different social circles – “while Jim’s social aspirations had died…Clark had…in short, become one of the best beaux in town.”
Darrow asks Jim to a dance. Jim is initially unsure, but when he sees Nancy Lamar, he is fascinated. She is a beautiful bad girl with a taste for gambling. Jim is content to sit and people-watch, but he feels drawn to Nancy. “Jim experienced the quick pang of a weird new kind of pain.” Nancy makes Powell feel “like a weed in shadow.” When Darrow tells him that Nancy is soon to be married, Powell finds the idea “inexplicably depressing.”
Nancy asks for Powell’s help to remove gum from her shoe. He releases gas from a car and she wades into it, drinking from Darrow’s flask. She announces her love of England though she has never been there. She says she would like to be like Lady Diana Manners, a well-known English socialite.
Powell rescues Nancy from a major gambling debt, and Nancy drunkenly proclaims that contrary to the popular saying, Powell is “lucky in dice and I – love him.” He realizes he has been used by her, but decides in spite of this to leave town and become “a gentleman” in order to keep her affections.
When Powell discovers that Nancy got drunk and married her original beau, he gives up on the plan to better himself. He returns to a familiar pool-hall to find a “congenial crowd.”
The story was written as a sequel to “The Ice Palace,” and Clark Darrow appears in both. The omniscient narrator, who ensures that close observation is paid to Powell’s story, draws in the reader. The opening line – “Jim Powell was a Jelly-bean”- labels the protagonist immediately, and as a character he remains within the stereotype Fitzgerald indicates, though he almost manages to break free. The narrator identifies the opening as “rather like the beginning of a fairy story,” but there is no happy ending.
The history of Powell’s life presents a tale of a family fallen on hard times. Powell is humiliated by the whisperings of the social set and chooses notoriety over civility. He fights for his country aged eighteen and returns at twenty-one with ill-fitting, unfashionable clothes which symbolize how he does not “fit” in society.
Powell contrasts with the attractive and dynamic Clark Darrow. He is unsure of whether to go to the party Darrow invites him to, but Nancy Lamar, with her “mouth like a remembered kiss,” entrances him. The simile is a romantic one, as although Powell has always known Nancy, she has never been attainable to him.
Clark tells Powell he ought to gamble with Nancy and “take all her money away from her.” He does gamble with her, and despite what she says, he is “lucky in dice” as he wins the game for her later, but he is not lucky in love. She tells him she loves him that night, but still marries the son of the razor dealer. There is an irony here in Merritt can be said to be “sharper” than Powell: he wins the girl, after all. Of biographical interest is also the fact that the gambling scenes were written with the assistance of Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott's wife, who had far more familiarity with the pastime than her husband.
Powell's attempt to remodel himself in order to attract a woman of society is a clear model for Jay Gatsby. Here, Fitzgerald just touches upon the theme of love motivating self-improvement, which five years later would be a central focus of The Great Gatsby. Powell's inability to attain the woman who engages his passion can also be compared to the doomed relationship of Jenny Prince and Jacob Booth in “Jacob’s Ladder” and the ill-fated Joel Coles who is used by Stella Calman in “Crazy Sunday.”