I had a post this morning on Taijuan Walker, Nolan Arenado, and some other M’s and Rockies. No game for me today, but thanks to all of you for your well wishes after hearing that my daughter’s stomach virus sent us to the ER last night. She’s fine now, but everyone’s exhausted, of course.
Horace McCoy’s novella They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? reads like an extended film treatment, a la Graham Greene’s The Third Man, which is what it actually was, although in McCoy’s case the film wasn’t made until long after his book was published and he had already died. The film earned nine Academy Award nominations, a record for a film that didn’t get a Best Picture nod, with Gig Young* winning the award for Best Supporting Actor. While it deviates somewhat from the book’s plot, both revolve around a dance marathan that exploits desperate would-be actors and hangers-on in Hollywood in the 1930s, all run by a sleazy promoter who takes advantage of the contestants to line his own pockets. (Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the film.)
*Young eventually killed himself and his wife of one month in 1978; his final film, Game of Death, was also Bruce Lee’s final film, compiled from unfinished footage shot before Lee’s death from a cerebral edema in 1973.
The sparse 120-page book is more a showcase for McCoy’s bleak, hard-boiled writing style and worldview than for any depth of plot, although there’s enough story here to sustain you through its 30,000 or so words. The book opens with Robert confessing to the murder of Gloria, essentially pleading no contest, after which we get the full story of how they met and how he came to kill her. The two are in Hollywood trying to land bit parts as extras – Gloria wants to be an actor, assuming she wants to be anything at all, while Robert wants to be a director, although it’s not clear he knows what that entails – and meet on the street after failing to earn parts that morning in their auditions. She mentions that she’s heard of a dance marathon being held with a small cash prize and the chance to be noticed by some Hollywood big shots, so he reluctantly agrees, mostly because he has nothing better to do.
The marathon is a rough, demeaning endurance contest, with dancers pushed to the limit by the unscrupulous organizers, including a bizarre nightly racing “derby” in which the losing couple is eliminated from the marathon, and a staged marriage designed to court positive and negative attention from the local press. Gloria is quickly revealed to be depressed and hopeless, picking pointless fights with other dancers and wishing aloud that she were dead. Robert is more interesting in going along to get along, but he’s just as aimless as Gloria, without the rage or hopelessness. When the contest ends in tragedy and the dancers are all sent off with a pittance for weeks of effort, Gloria pulls out a gun and tells Robert that she wants to kill herself but doesn’t have the guts, an ending foretold from the beginning of the story.
The book’s introduction says it was well-received in existentialist circles in France while it was derided or ignored in the United States until decades after its publication, and the connection to Sartre and Camus is apparent – but McCoy writes with a fire that the classic literary existentialists, so bent on telling us that everything is pointless, always lack. They Shoot Horses has an angle of suspense even though you know it ends in Gloria’s death, which to me reads as a rejoinder to existentialism: That life ends in death does not mean it lacks all meaning. We can know the ending of the story and still find interest in the journey. McCoy’s message isn’t uplifting – after all, his main characters are all devoid of purpose – but it’s not inherently nihilistic, since Gloria, the most hopeless character of all, is shown in the most unflattering light.
Next review: Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank.