Customer Review

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars They sure do, 14 Nov 2012
This review is from: They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Serpent's Tail Classics) (Paperback)
Gloria is a burned out wannabe actress in 1930s Hollywood who, after failing to win a dance marathon (dancing for literally weeks on end) asks her dance partner Robert to shoot her in the head - which he does. This isn't a spoiler as it's the framing device of the novel with Robert telling the reader at the start of the book as he stands in the dock being sentenced by the judge of how he came to meet Gloria and of their time in the hellish carnival atmosphere of the dance marathon.

Dance marathons were popular forms of entertainment in 1920s and 30s America where couples, often strangers to one another, desperate for cash and food because of the Great Depression (they were given regular meals and a roof over their heads while they were in the competition) would enter. The rules were they had to keep moving (not necessarily dancing, just moving) for 1 hour 50 minutes and then allowed a 10 minute break. Often the couples would take turns sleeping on one another as the sheer exhaustion welled up over the oftentimes weeks-long endurance contest.

Strangely, this book reminded me of "The Hunger Games": the dance marathon is a sadistic endurance test watched by crowds of people starved for entertainment and lucky couples are sponsored by companies and given food and clothes as a result. It's kind of a lo-fi "Hunger Games" except the dance marathons were real.

Horace McCoy uses the dance marathon as a pessimistic metaphor for life, resembling the kind of miserable existence most people experienced in Depression-era America shuffling through life barely surviving, utterly fatigued, and watched by indifferent strangers until they collapsed, unable to go on with no reward for their effort. This bleak outlook and sensational ending made McCoy a popular writer among the existentialist crowd with Satre and Beauvoir praising McCoy's novel as "the first existentialist American novel".

The one complaint I would have is the arbitrary ending. After getting to know the narrator over the course of this short novel, it seemed to me that he was a decent sort, optimistic and cheerful - to have him suddenly shoot Gloria just to "put her out of her misery" seemed out of character. He compares her to a horse with a broken leg which is just weird. It didn't detract from my enjoyment of the novel, it just felt a bit contrived and forced rather than convincing and natural.

For such a short novel, McCoy manages to cover a lot of ground, detailing the dance marathon craze along with shades of existentialism, the exploitation of women, the effects of the Depression, and the desperate culture of Hollywood. "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is a morbidly fascinating glimpse into a forgotten cultural event from America's past written in a taut noir style mixed in with a dark and entrancing murder story with a twist. It's brilliant and is as interesting to read today as it must have been back in the 30s. Definitely worth looking into for fans of unusual fiction.
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