Friday, September 21, 2018

The Book You Have to Read: “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” by Horace McCoy

(Editor’s note: This is the 157th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books. It comes from New York resident Gray Basnight. After a youthful dalliance with acting, he’s spent almost three decades in the broadcast news business as a writer, editor, producer, and reporter. He’s also the author of three novels: The Cop with the Pink Pistol (2012), a modern-day New York detective mystery; Shadows in the Fire (2015), a Civil War-era yarn about two young slaves living just on the edge of freedom as Richmond, Virginia, falls in April 1865; and Flight of the Fox, a run-for-your-life thriller released in July by Down & Out Books.)

Sometimes the most overlooked and criminally forgotten mystery novels hide in plain sight. That’s the case with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy. Very few people today will recognize the author’s name. Yet his most popular title is widely known, primarily by baby boomers, because of the 1969 film starring Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. Therein lies a problem typical to our era. We know the movie and we know the story, but we do not know the novel or the novelist.

This wonderfully hard-boiled and metaphoric narrative was originally published in 1935. It depicts two young Hollywood hopefuls, Robert Syverten and Gloria Beatty, struggling against double-downed odds. Not only do they hope to break into the film industry, but they’re trying to do it during the Great Depression. Broke in both means and spirit, these two opt to play the odds at another game: a weeks-long dance marathon wherein the winning couple—make that the surviving couple—is promised a thousand dollars. In today’s economy, that 1935 sum equals as much as one-hundred-thousand dollars in buying power.

From there, the set-up may be obvious even to those who have neither read McCoy’s novel nor seen the movie. The couple struggles mightily, only to ultimately lose everything, including, for Gloria, the will to continue living. The marathon, of course, is a dark allegory of life itself, where the game so frequently seems rigged and there are no true winners. Even those who establish the contest rules are caught in their own craven cycle of marathon defeat. To subtly emphasize its fatalistic pace, the story takes place on a pier with the constant roll of the Pacific Ocean in the background. It’s the same effect Matthew Arnold immortalized in his great poem “Dover Beach”:
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back …
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Maybe McCoy loved Arnold’s poem, because that’s his bare-bones narrative in a nutshell. As one of the greatest noir mysteries ever penned, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? also explores the “eternal note of sadness” that wounds all humanity. At fewer than 40,000 words in length, the story is so spartan that it’s a writer’s lesson in brevity. As such, it’s spiritually related to two other classics of the genre: The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain (published in 1934), and The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West (1939). Both of those have been adapted for film as well, yet unlike Horses, they tend to retain greater prestige as standalone novels.

McCoy’s vivid writing nears perfection of the hard-boiled, Chandleresque style that he and other writers of their era followed and eventually helped to evolve:

Couples Remaining …….. 26
The derby races were killing them off. Fifty-odd couples had been eliminated in two weeks. Gloria and I had come close to the finish once or twice, but by the skin of our teeth we managed to hang on. After we changed our technique we had no more trouble: we stopped trying to win, not caring where we finished so long as it wasn’t last.

We had got a sponsor too: Jonathan Beer, Non-Fattening.
Near the end, when Robert and Gloria have opted out of the “dance,” the reader can feel the story readying to earn its title:
We sat down on a bench that was wet with spray. Up towards the end of the pier several men were fishing over the railing. The night was black; there was no moon, no stars. An irregular line of white foam marked the shore.

“This air is fine,” I said.

Gloria said nothing, staring into the distance. Far down the shore on a point there were lights.

“That’s Malibu,” I said. “Where all the movie stars live.”
Then there’s McCoy’s cutting-edge experimentation. As someone once said, there are no laws for writing a novel. Horace McCoy not only knew that, but he lived it in writing this manuscript. The plotting of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? turns formulaic tradition inside out before sending it to the future where the reader lives. The beginning is the ultimate ending. Though penultimate, the actual ending becomes the reader’s denouement.

Try to figure that out. Although convoluted, it’s simple and works beautifully. And if that’s not enough writerly iconoclasm for you, consider the chapter titles. Each heading tenders a retelling of the basic plot, while constituting a standalone subplot. And it does so in a font of increasing size half-a-century before Microsoft offered each consumer a home-based printing press via Microsoft Word:



While we’re on the subject of formulaic rebellion, there’s that title:
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
I mean, it has punctuation! Two pieces of punctuation, to be exact. Name another title of any novel from any age by any author with both a comma and a question mark. (Betcha can’t.)

Then, after all that, this terrifically inventive crime writer blows off tradition once more with his last line of dialogue. No spoiler alert is necessary as McCoy took care of that from the title page. Robert speaks his final words for the reader when a police officer asks him why he killed her:
“They shoot horses, don’t they?” I said.
The good news for readers looking to discover McCoy’s debut novel is that They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? remains in print, as do many of his other, even lesser-known works. One reason for that, aside from the success of the 1969 film, may be that readers in France discovered Horses in 1948, embracing its metaphoric value for transcending the genre of crime noir and exploring, as it does, philosophy noir (aka existentialism). Novelist and feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir even crowned Horses America’s “first existential novel.” Coming from the life partner of Jean-Paul Sartre, that’s quite a recommendation. Too bad it’s never been used as a cover blurb for McCoy’s minor masterpiece. Perhaps the time has come to do so.

READ MORE:Tired of Living, Afraid of Dying: Horace McCoy’s Legacy,” by Chris Morgan (Los Angeles Review of Books).

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