They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Serpent's Tail Classics) Paperback – 4 Nov 2010
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Sordid, pathetic, senselessly exciting ... has the immediacy and the significance of a nerve-shattering explosion (New Republic)
Were it not in its physical details so carefully documented, it would be lurid beyond itself (Nation)
Language is not minced in this short novel which presents life in its most brutal aspect (Saturday Review of Literature)
The first existentialist novel to have appeared in America (Simone de Beauvoir)
A brilliant, bitter, wonderful portrait of mother and daughter, artist and lover (Kirkus)
Horace McCoy shoots words like bullets (Time)
A spare, bleak parable about American life, which McCoy pictured as a Los Angeles dance marathon in the early thirties ... full of the kind of apocalyptic detail that both he and Nathanael West saw in life as lived on the Hollywood fringe (New York Times)
Captures the survivalist barbarity in this bizarre convention, and becomes a metaphor for life itself: the last couple on their feet gets the prize (Independent)
I was moved, then shaken by the beauty and genius of Horace McCoy's metaphor (Village Voice)
It's the unanswerable nature of the whydunnit that ensures the book's durability (booklit.com)
Takes the reader into one of America's darkest corners ... The story has resonance for contemporary America and the current craze for reality television. How far are we from staging a dance marathon for television? (readywhenyouarecb.com)
This almost sadistically frank pulp fiction from 1935 will cure anyone of the delusion that earlier generations didn't know the score. With murder, incest, abortion, and the like generously added to a plot about people entertaining themselves by watching the misery of others, it's like one of these eliminationist "reality" television shows (Survivor, Big Brother, etc.) as conceived by the creative team of Thomas Hobbes and Charles Darwin. These lives are indeed nasty, brutish, and short. It doesn't make for a pretty story, but you have to admire the zeal and energy with which Horace McCoy drives his point home (Brothersjudd.com)
A sharply-honed novella... Brilliant (Val Hennessy Daily Mail 2010-11-12)
A classic novel about hardscrabble survival in 1930s Depression-era America (The Times 2010-11-06)
America's first existential novel (Evening Standard 2010-11-18)
And finally, showing the modern writers how it's done... the 1930s existentialist noir classic... it's a breathtaking piece of storytelling that is still thrillingly relevant today. (Doug Johnstone Big Issue 2010-11-15)
Forget Raymond Chandler and his overrated ilk - Horace McCoy's 1935 novel is the best example of American noir ever written... it is an extraordinary achievement and every bit as shocking and moving today as it must have been for its original readers. Gripping from the beginning - when we are given to understand that the narrator is being condemned to death for an unknown crime - it's the story of two losers stumbling endlessly round a grotty Hollywood ballroom in a grotesque and ultimately futile struggle for survival. The characters are both more, and less, than human, the writing is tersely perfect, and the ending almost unbearably moving. (Laura Wilson Guardian 2010-11-27)
The brutality of the story is offset by the poetic beauty and precision of the narrative... In our world of fleeting reality TV stardom, this stark, urgent novel feels more timely than ever. (Anita Sethi Observer 2011-04-24)
A typographically innovative drama... A heartbreaking existentialist fable about a gruelling marathon dance contest... the tale assumes the weight of Greek tragedy... a masterpiece. (Christopher Fowler Independent on Sunday 2011-08-21)
Cult American noir now a Serpent's Tail ClassicSee all Product description
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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.
Thus the book begins...It's the 1930's right outside Hollywood in Santa Monica California and yet another version of the marathon dance craze is being enacted. Two Hollywood hopefuls, Gloria and Robert, happen upon one another and decide to team up, after all there's a $1,000 prize to the last couple standing. So begins this tortured story. It's one of struggle reflective of the depression. The couples are required to stay in motion with a ten minute rest break every so often and meals eaten standing up but a free meal is a free meal! There's a creepy zoo like feel as an audience gathers to watch the couples in the center. Robert longs to see the sun but is prodded back into the building by his keepers; Gloria is in despair and keeps saying she wants to die. Nerves become more and more frazzled.
The 70's movie starring Jane Fonda as Gloria might even be better than the book. Though there is much license taken with the book, the movie is more overt in the theme of struggle and the dichotomy between the rich vs. poor during the depression, it's still incredibly well done and worth watching. Sadly it seems relevant to our contemporary situations in many ways. McCoy however, gives a wider palette of emotions and issues in his writing. He emphasizes the morality of the character's actions. It has sub themes such as who is a criminal, is it ever moral to kill and if so in what situation(s)? McCoy also touches on the exploitation of people especially of women. Last is the theme of reconciling the childhood heartbreaks and the values they've inherited from those early sorrows and how people carry that pain into adulthood. As I'm sure you gathered both from McCoy's title and my reactions to his book this isn't a feel good experience but it's well worth taking the time to read this vintage story.
This review was based on an egalley provided by the publisher.
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