Adventures in Reading

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy
“‘I’m tired of living and I’m afraid of dying.”

Somehow I wound up with the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? When I watched the film I did not appreciate it, but it was still interesting and Jane Fonda was sensational. I picked up the short novel a month ago and gave in to McCoy’s 1935 flirtation with existentialism. The premise of the novel is a 1930s dance marathon where couples compete to see who lasts the longest, and these go on for weeks if not months and couples spend nearly the entire day on their feet. However, in exchange these people are fed and housed and are given a chance to win the grand prize.

McCoy’s 129-page novel is a flashback that occurs within one sentence: “There being no legal cause why sentence should not now be pronounced it is the judgment and sentence of this court that for the crime of murder in the first degree of which you have been convicted by the jury carrying with it the extreme penalty of law you, Robert Syverten, be delivered by the sheriff of Los Angeles County to the warden of state prison to be by said warden executed and put to death upon the 19th day of the month of September, in the year of our Lord, 1935 in the manner of the laws provided by the state of California and may God have mercy on your soul.”

This is the frame of the story, and our narrator, Robert, explains to the reader in multi-layered thoughts about how he killed or assisted with the suicide of his dance partner Gloria Beatty. McCoy positions Gloria as the cynical pessimist while Robert initially is an optimist. During the novel the two (along with the other dancers) are trapped inside of a dance hall on a wharf. While Robert wonders at the subtlety of the waves that vibrate through the building and glories in what sun light he experiences, Gloria pesters a pregnant dancer about getting an abortion and spends the novel expressing suicidal and gloomy sentiments.

It is easy to keep these two characters at juxtaposing points, but that does lose the possible complexities of the story. During one of my favorite scenes of the novel Gloria lets out on two women representing the Mother’s League for Good Morals who are attempting to close down the dance. Gloria introduces them to a slice of reality, but ultimately focuses on what these women actually mean to achieve when these “kids” who are dancing have nothing and no where to go.

At the end of the novel, the dance has been closed down as a result of a bar fight that ended in a patron’s death. While Robert and Gloria are on the wharf, Gloria produces a gun and asks Robert to “pitch-hit” for god by pulling the trigger. Here Robert briefly focuses on one flashback – a flashback that carries much of the film adaptation – where his grandfather had to shoot a lame horse, and the grandfather explains it was to put the horse out of her misery. The closing line and title of the novel is in response to police inquiry on why Robert shot Gloria: “They shoot horses, don’t they?”

For such a short novel there is a great deal involved. There are Robert and Gloria, the actual dance marathon, the other contestants, the fact that the dancers are gladly trapped, the physical endurance and pain, unnecessary violence, the snippets that trickle in from the outside world, and all of this playing before a backdrop of Hollywood. By the end of the novel, one very much feels for Gloria. If you can get this novel I definitely recommend it. I fortunately stumbled across a used copy, but it seems my local public library does not carry it. (Granted, there is always Amazon!)



I had only seen the movie, and had no idea it was based on a novel. Thanks for clueing me in.

Comment by Ms. Place

Ms. Place: You are not the only one! When I first stumbled onto the book I thought it was one of those written-from-the-movie novelizations, but the 1935 copyright proved that to be incorrect.

Comment by bookchronicle

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