150+ essays on literary topics
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is best known as a film starring Jane Fonda, but that was in 1969 by which time the novel by Horace McCoy had been in print for thirty-four years. Perhaps Hollywood had to get through the war and then the McCarthy era before it was ready to take on something so bleak, so uncompromising. The thirties were far enough behind by then for its message to seem less urgent, for the story to be one about America and Hollywood as they used to be, for audiences to ask incredulously whether things like that really happened, for the plain Jane but sassy heroine to be played by the sassy but pretty Jane Fonda.
The story is told by a male Hollywood hopeful who meets on the street a female Hollywood no-hoper who persuades him to be her partner in a dance marathon, a popular spectacle during the Depression in which people who could afford it paid to watch people who couldn’t dance themselves to exhaustion over several days and nights, dancing continuously with just one ten minute break every hour, for the chance of a cash prize and the possibility of getting noticed. By the end of the quite short novel we know not much more about the characters than we did at the start, but a lot about the world they live in.
Every page consists mainly of dialogue, description is spare, we see everything through the eyes of the narrator, who is someone just like us. What we learn about Gloria, his partner, we learn, as he does, by what she says.
‘So I finally ran away,’ she said, ‘to Dallas. Ever been there?’
‘I’ve never been to Texas at all,’ I said.
‘You haven’t missed anything,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t get a job, so I decided to steal something in a store and make the cops take care of me.’
‘That was a good idea,’ I said.
‘It was a swell idea,’ she said, ‘only it didn’t work. I got arrested all right, but the detectives felt sorry for me and turned me loose. To keep from starving to death I moved in with a Syrian who had a hot-dog place around the corner from the City Hall. He chewed tobacco all the time… Have you ever been in bed with a man who chewed tobacco?’
‘I don’t believe I have,’ I said.
‘I guess I might even have stood that,’ she said, ‘but when he wanted to make me between customers, on the kitchen table, I gave up. A couple of nights later I took poison.’
‘Jesus,’ I said to myself.
The dialogue, with its laugh line tucked in, is typical and, though it works well on the page, might have been written with a movie in mind. Gloria talks like they do in the movies. Horace McCoy had worked as an extra. Gloria, perhaps, was a girl he once met, or more likely several girls. The way the novel is structured, each chapter a flashback introduced by a phrase from the sentence passed on the narrator for Gloria’s murder, starting with ‘The prisoner will stand’ and ending with ‘May God have mercy on your soul’, is a structure more common in movies than books. There are voice-overs too, the narrator’s thoughts, printed in italics to distinguish them from the rest of the narration, which would probably work better on the screen than they do on the page. The novel begins with one, following on from the judge’s first words:
I stood up. For a moment I saw Gloria again, sitting on that bench on the pier. The bullet had just struck her in the side of the head…
There are others scattered through the book, with one near the end where the narrator remembers an incident from his childhood on his grandfather’s farm when an old horse has to be shot.
I loved that horse. I hated my grandfather… Later that day he explained that he loved Nellie too, but that he had to shoot her. ‘It was the kindest thing to do,’ he said. ‘She was no more good. It was the only way to get her out of her misery…’
For Nellie, read Gloria. A little clunky perhaps, but it works. Perhaps McCoy had seen so many movies that experience for him always took the form of screenplay: dialogue, cross-cuts, voice-overs, real time, flashbacks. If so, he is not the only one. Every writer re-organises experience into a literary framework of some kind. This was McCoy’s and at some level it is his readers’ too, so it works.
On the other hand, perhaps he wrote it like this because he hoped one of the Hollywood studios would buy it. If so, that worked too and if he hadn’t died in 1955, when he was only fifty-eight, he would have lived to see it.
My next post, on 18 March, will be about ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Last Man’ by Mary Shelley.