Saturday, January 5, 2013

*They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy

Serpent's Tail, 2010
originally published 1935
127 pp

 [#628 on the list of 1001 books you must read]

"Past a certain point you kept moving automatically, without actually being conscious of moving. One minute you would be travelling at top speed and the next moment you started falling."

They Shoot Horses Don't They? is set (and was written) during America's great depression, and begins somewhat cryptically with the words "The prisoner will stand," followed by a brief reflection by Robert Syverten who has just been convicted of the murder of Gloria Beatty and is awaiting sentencing.  During Robert's trial, the Prosecuting Attorney had told the jury  that Gloria "died in agony, friendless, alone except for her brutal murderer." While this opening has all of the earmarks of a crime fiction novel, inwardly Robert dispels that notion with an au contraire:  
  “She did not die in agony.  She was relaxed and comfortable and she was smiling. It was the first time I had ever seen her smile. How could she have been in agony then? And she wasn't friendless.”
As his sentence is handed down in short sentences and phrases throughout the novel, the typeface growing larger and larger until the judge's final words are spoken, Robert looks back on how he came to be here at this particular moment in time, all starting with a random meeting on the streets of Los Angeles. The novel not only examines how much pain or humiliation a person can withstand in his or her own fight for survival or that of others,  but it also looks at the utter hopelessness for some in life's unending dance toward the American dream.  

Both Robert and Gloria have been drawn to Hollywood in hopes of making it big. Both have been rejected; neither of them can get registered by Central Casting and the idea of someone on the inside helping them to break in to the movies is a bit ludicrous, as Gloria notes,

"In this business, how can you tell who'll help you?...One day you're an electrician and the next day you're a producer."
 They meet by accident, and it isn't long until Gloria tells Robert about an upcoming dance marathon that promises free food, a place to sleep and a $1,000 prize -- but the big draw for Gloria is that the marathons are often attended by directors and producers who might have a part for you in an upcoming movie.  Robert is reluctant but gives in, and the two become one of 144 couples hoping to win; half of the dancers have "made a business of going in marathon dances from all over the country;" the rest were just ordinary people hoping for that one shot at success in what will ultimately become a monumental test of endurance and a desperate fight for survival.   At first, as Robert notes,

 "for the first week we had to dance, but after that you didn't. All you had to do was keep moving."

Dancing or staying on one's feet for 1 hour and 50 minutes, with 10-minute breaks before the next round begins is tough enough, but McCoy reminds us that what is a life and death struggle for some is merely entertainment or business for others.  Pennies are thrown from audience members in a "silver shower" after contestants perform "specialty" acts such as tap dancing for the little money that lands on the floor. When the audience isn't large or famous enough, the dancers are put through an especially grueling "novelty" each night called the derby, a 15 minute race where the couples go around a painted oval on the floor, with the woman holding on to a belt specially designed to keep the couple together, a feat designed to bring in more watchers, which means more money to the promoters. The last couple in the race is disqualified, so the derby  becomes a painful race to stay ahead. (Oh, the symbolism abounds in this novel and it's simply amazing!) People begin to stumble or fall, and the others have no choice but to step over them to make it to their goal, hurrying over broken bodies and broken dreams as "the derby races were killing them off."   The promoters are especially hopeful that the show will bring in "that Hollywood bunch," and as the contest becomes more painful and competitive, the promoters up the ante with cheap stunts like an arranged marriage that will yield the couple $100 -- entirely sponsored, of course and "in line with the management's policy to give you nothing but high class entertainment." 

during a derby, a scene from the film of the same name, directed by Sidney Pollack

But it is Gloria at the heart of this story, with her defeatist outlook which  manifests itself in ongoing death wishes for herself throughout  the novel.  Her childhood was a hardscrabble mess; leaving her West Texas home brought her to LA where she traded one set of problems for another. She's a misfit, and having tried and failed so many times, she just doesn't care any longer, she's hopeless in the true meaning of the word, tired of the idea that "the big break is always coming tomorrow," and "sick of doing the same thing over and over again." She's  ready to "get off this merry-go-round...through with the whole stinking thing."  She's tired of the growing numbers of celebrities in the audience and their success which only makes her envious,  of having to suck up to the sponsors and demeaning herself, and she's  more than  ready to escape the struggle of her life. And after the dance is over, what then?  The marathon truly is Gloria's life encapsulated in a matter of days and hours. 

I could seriously go on and on about this book  because the 127 pages is just filled with amazing though stark-in-style writing, wonderful symbolism that doesn't bog a casual reader like myself down into frustration. They Shoot Horses, Don't They is a magnificent novel that snapshots a period of time in a meaningful although bleak manner, creating a microcosm of America with hope and hopelessness right at the center of life in a most miserable era, but also carrying a great deal of modern relevance. A large number of reviewers have mentioned the modern reality-TV phenomenon in connection with this novel, and rightly so ... think of all of the shows out there where people face ridicule, public humiliation and tackle the limits of their personal endurance in the hopes of some measure of  fame and cash, especially in today's economy.  In the meanwhile, the voyeurs at  home keep these shows going (myself included ... I have a thing for chef competition shows) and we watch and root for our favorites as the producers devise challenge after challenge and sometimes impossible-seeming hoops for these people to go through.  For us in the comfort of our living rooms, it's entertainment; for the people competing it's not all fun and games -- for some it's that  one-time  shot at fulfilling their dreams.  I loved this book and it's definitely one not to be missed. 

as a postscript, last night I watched the movie via Netflix and I recommend it as well -- read the book first, though.


  1. I want, I want, I want! As I said in your previous entry, Open Road Media just reissued this as a new e-book -- I have it in my review queue -- and pushing it up higher because you're comments have me so.freakin'.excited!

    Have you read any Nathanael West?


Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.