The Madness of May

March 28, 2013

The Madness of May, by Meredith Nicholson, is very, very silly. But maybe not quite silly enough. Coincidence piles on coincidence, and most of the characters have given themselves up to the profession of ridiculousness, and Nicholson manages to have it all hang together pretty well, but…I don’t know. I’m going to tell you about it and you’re going to think it sounds awesome, but there’s something lacking. The nonsense isn’t infectious. The Madness of May should be magic, and it’s just not.

Billy Deering has just lost a whole pile of bonds he embezzled from his dad’s company and is kind of in a snit about it when he arrives home to be told by the butler that his friend Mr. Hood has come to stay. Billy doesn’t know any Mr. Hood, and he’s afraid his visitor is a detective or something, come to arrest him, but it turns out that R. Hood (Robin, obviously) is a tanned and and shabby (but somehow distinguished) gentleman who has come to take Billy on an adventure. He’s full of stories about consorting with crooks of various kinds, is probably being followed by detectives, and travels with a chauffeur he calls Cassowary and who he claims is a millionaire who can’t be trusted with his own money.

They set out in search of the girl who accidentally took Billy’s suitcase instead of her own at Grand Central, and promptly run into a) a girl in a clown costume dancing in the moonlight and calling herself Pierette, b) a girl calling herself Babette and wearing a maid’s costume who clearly isn’t a maid, and c) the suitcase full of bonds. Further along, they find d) an elderly gentleman calling himself Pantaloon and e) his middle-aged but attractive daughter, Columbine. Also f) Billy’s sister, who is not in California where she’s supposed to be, and g) Billy’s father, who’s in jail. Most of these people have things to say about a novel, also called The Madness of May, that, from the characters’ reactions to it, is probably better than this book. Eventually everyone except Pantaloon and Billy’s dad get paired off.

Hood and characters a), b), d) and e) are, throughout, theoretically spouting nonsense. Actually, though, it’s not as nonsensical as they think it is, and they vary it by berating Billy for not joining them in their whimsy. Of course, most of the crazy things that happen to Billy turn out to be orchestrated, but just how orchestrated they are might surprise you. Probably nothing else will, except maybe that Billy doesn’t know who William Blake is.

I know I say this all the time, but I didn’t dislike this book as much as it sounds like I did. I just found it uninspired and unconvincing on a small scale. Before I started writing about books on a regular basis, I didn’t really understand what people meant when they said writers should show, not tell. I think I get it now: you can’t just say, “everyone had a great time,” because even if a reader is perfectly happy to believe you, they’re not going to really feel like everyone had a good time unless you show them. You can’t just say that jokes are funny; they have to actually be funny. No matter how much you suspend disbelief, if there’s no supporting evidence for what the author is telling you, you’re going to feel dissatisfied. That’s how I felt after reading The Madness of May, and that’s how I felt after reading Nicholson’s A Reversible Santa Claus.


  1. if you are going to pull off a theme of commedia del arte, you really do need to bring the funny.

    • I don’t think he’s even trying to do commedia dell’arte. He’s just throwing the names around and expecting everyone to get it.

  2. You’re right, that does sound like it should be awesome. I love stories about Robin Hood.

    • Except he hasn’t got any particularly claim to the name. He calls himself Robin Hood, but it’s not clear that he’s actually a criminal, or that he ever helps anyone out — except Billy, I guess — or anything else particularly Robin Hood-y.

  3. I’m always kind of disappointed by Nicholson’s books–they always sound better than they are. But I’ll probably try this one.

    • I like him fine when he’s more serious — it’s his attempts at light, humorous stuff that I find disappointing. Which of his books have you read?

      • I read and liked The House of a Thousand Candles. I started (twice) Otherwise Phyllis, and I started Blacksheep! Blacksheep! and The Port of Missing Men. I somehow lose interest in them after I start them. I’m not sure why.

        • Of those, I’ve only read The House of a Thousand Candles, and liked it a lot. I hope to get to some of the others soon — I’ve got The Port of Missing Men and The Siege of Seven Suitors on my TBR list. Whatever the quality of the books, I love his titles.

        • I have that exact same problem with Otherwise Phyllis, and I don’t know why either.

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