Horace McCoy: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Regular readers need no introduction to my weakness for any imprint with ‘Classics’ in its name. Why is this? Something to do with my belief that there are more fine forgotten books out there than great new ones being published; and that someone somewhere must have had a strong belief in it to bother reissuing a title that’s going to forego the usual publicity opportunities. New in such series, and very interesting, is Serpent’s Tail Classics, which has issued eight titles so far, including books by Fernando Pessoa, George Pelecanos, Elfriede Jelinek and Walter Mosley. Some of the range are books I’d always been vaguely aware of, but never had any interest in: like Chester Himes’ If He Hollers Let Him Go, and this one.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) hadn’t interested me before because I thought it was some sentimental nonsense about horses. I knew there was a film adaptation and – …reflecting on it, I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I think I confused it with National Velvet. So, there are no horses in this book. Rather, it’s a skinny and brutal account of existence at the edge of Depression America.

My normal policy with reviews is to avoid all spoilers, but it’s hard to do that here because the outcome is revealed to us at the beginning. Yet the fact that the book treads a line between deceptively simple and just plain simple, and my nagging suspicion that there’s not much more to it than what we see on the surface (interesting though that is), raises doubts as to whether I should discuss the plot completely, or not at all. So caveat lector.

The book opens with words delivered in court as Robert Syverten, our narrator, is sentenced to death for the murder of Gloria Beatty. If this is a crime novel, its journey is not to show who did it, but how he got there. As it turns out, there’s no mystery here either: from the start, we know that Robert murdered Gloria as a favour to her. “She did not die in agony,” he tells us. “She was relaxed and comfortable and she was smiling. It was the first time I had ever seen her smile.” But that doesn’t matter to the court.

They are going to kill me. I know exactly what that judge is going to say. I can tell by the look of him that he is going to be glad to say it and I can tell by the feel of the people behind me that they are going to be glad to hear him say it.

They might be glad to hear him say it so that they don’t have to think about people like Gloria any more. She is someone for whom life has no meaning. “It’s peculiar to me,” she says, “that people pay so much attention to living and so little to dying. Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it?” And elsewhere: “More and more and more I wish I was dead.”

If the book gives us not much impetus to find out how Gloria ends up dead, nor does it give any journey for the reader to discover why she is the way she is. (The book is neither whodunit nor whywantit.) We have some background information on her troubled childhood, but otherwise nothing. She just is. Simone de Beauvoir described They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? as “the first existentialist novel to have appeared in America.” Another handy label for Gloria might be ‘nihilistic’, but it would be unfair to suggest that the book leaves it at that. We get a microcosm of the society which may have helped create Gloria in the dance marathon event which she and Robert enter shortly after meeting. “Free food and a free bed as long as you last.” The dance marathon is as symbolic as you might expect: held in a dancehall on the end of a pier – at the end of the world – with nothing but the sea beneath. “Through the balls of my feet,” Robert tells us, “I could feel the ocean surging against the pilings below.”

The marathon goes on for weeks – well, it’s a marathon – and the relentless grind of it, pleasure turning to punishment, is a not too heavily disguised analogue for Gloria’s experience of life.

Past a certain point you kept moving automatically, without actually being conscious of moving. One minute you would be travelling at top speed and the next moment you started falling.

The organisers pass up no opportunity to promote the event, through public marriage ceremonies between the contestants, representing, I suppose, the cynicism of corporate America exploiting the little man who is already suffering. Subtlety is not much present here, and you can see in the book its origins as an unproduced screenplay. Nonetheless, the singleminded power of the book holds through to the end, and even if it’s one to read but not to reread, it’s certainly worth one walk through, which won’t take long anyway. This Serpent’s Tail Classics edition comes with an introduction by John Harvey, and a valuable essay on McCoy by William Marling. Among other things, we learn that McCoy sold a screenplay in 1951 for $100,000 (how much would that be now?), and died so penniless four years later that his widow had to sell his books and jazz records to pay for his funeral.


  1. This is the kind of book that right-wingers hate. I read it years ago and loved it, glad you’re drawing attention to it, John, and I’m glad it’s being re-issued.

    Chester Himes: it’s a funny one, that. I bought a collection of three of his novels years ago, tried it, admired it but felt no urge to return to any of the work. I don’t know why that is, still.

  2. Lee, why do you say that this is the kind of book right-wingers hate?

    I see on rereading my review that I have sounded almost dismissive of the book. My feelings on it are positive, though I knew when I finished it that I would never want to reread it; as part of me agrees with Nabokov that (to paraphrase) only books worth rereading are worth reading in the first place, that has coloured my view of it.

  3. I suppose it’s an assumption of mine that drawing attention to such an uncomfortable truth, rather than them mulling it, right-wingers, Tories, in my experience, tend to disproportionately shirk stuff like the ‘nihilism’ and the scenario that unfolds in the book. It’s stuff to brush under the carpet for some people. That’s my experience.

  4. I couldn’t resist the question and have discovered that $100k in 1951 would be approximately $860k today.

    This title seems to have caused a few mix-ups (Lee and Linda excepted): I knew it was a film starring Jane Fonda but for some reason I thought it was about either the Civil War or Vietnam or possibly a Civil War based allegory of Vietnam. Hmmm.

  5. And I’ve used ‘experience’ once too many times there – I could pretend it was for emphasis but it was just ill-thought scribbling to blame.

    $860k – not bad but I bet the meerkat got way more for his memoir.

  6. Thanks leroyhunter. When I wrote the review, my parenthetical query was really just a placeholder till I bothered to work out the equivalent of $100,000 today (unsure whether to use RPI, CPI, earnings, etc), but I never did bother in the end…

  7. Lee, the right-wing reaction you describe strikes me as analogous to the reaction provoked in anyone left of Mussolini by Ayn Rand (and now, Glenn Beck [shudder]).

  8. A friend of mine who’d spent the first thirty years of his life avoiding reading once asked me to recommend a ‘proper book’ that wouldn’t be ‘too boring or too long’.

    I couldn’t think of anything that fitted the bill better than They shoot horses.

    It may be somewhat simplistic, but I still think it have tremendous power and the kind of focus and directness that’s sadly lacking in much modern writing, where 130 pages can pass without a great deal happening.

    For all its failings, I’d be surprised if many people read it and felt unmoved by it.

    1. Ironically, he didn’t finish it. Nor Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Nor The Outsider. Nor The Great Gatsby. He did get through Of Mice and Men, though, but didn’t ask for any more recommendations.

  9. McCoy is underrated now I think, though he overrated himself. His other books (No Pockets in a Shroud, I should Have Stayed Home) are good thrillers. He’s especially good at creating convincing mental states, and can certainly grip you, even if the writing is spartan and underdeveloped. He also wrote a ‘literary’ novel, set in the Pennsylvania coal fields, called Scalpel. It’s not badly done, but it’s one for the fans I suspect. I wrote a short biographical piece about him for a book a while back, if anyone is interested. Quite a colourful life:


  10. I’ve written up two Himes over at mine, if anyone remains curious about those. Well worth reading if you’re a crime or hardboiled fan, if you lean more generally towards literary fiction though I wouldn’t characterise them as crossover books so you can probably skip. I’m not sure how much you’d get from them John, I think your instincts are right there.

    Unlike this, which I regard as a small masterpiece. I think it’s a tremendous study in existentialism. The dance is a metaphor for life generally of course, but also for the grinding pointlessness of existence at the bottom of the pile. A false promise of a glittering but far off prize and in the meantime the same day in day out. All those taking part can do is cling to each other and hope they’ll last a bit longer than the next couple. It’s highly political and in some ways a critique of the American dream too which leads the poor to act against their interests in the fantasy of a social mobility which rarely arrives.

    I think it’s well written, structurally clever in utterly undermining any sense of suspense as to what’s going to happen and I don’t really think Gloria’s background is important. In a way it’s the nameless protagonist who I focus on. He has chances, but not many and Gloria destroys as many of those for him as anyone else does. He is the poor, brought down as much by those next to him as he is those above him and killed because of the uncomfortable truth he represents. It’s not an entirely comfortable read for the Left either, as it’s far from just the faceless bosses who close down his life. The dancers cling on not just for support, but also to keep you there with them.

    Put another way, I’m with Simone de Beauvoir. For me this book is existentialist espresso, ristretto even. It’s the philosophy boiled down almost to a short story.

    I quite like it.

  11. The film was great – with Jane Fonda I think. I read the book after seeing the film and I think I got more interested in the sociological bits than the narrative but it was an awfully long time ago. There’s an interesting acount of the 30’s dance marathons in the autobiography of June Havoc who was Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister. It’s called Cry Havoc and is also an account of growing up as a child star in vaudeville with a monstrously pushy mother .

  12. Thanks for the comments everyone. Max, your praise of the book is eloquent and persuasive. I’ll read your Himes posts but may pass on If He Hollers – I’ve just given up on another of the Serpent’s Tail Classics, George Pelecanos’ Shoedog, which I got halfway through but never found particularly interesting. It just seemed to be a run-of-the-mill crime caper novel.

    Chris, thanks for the commentary on McCoy’s other books, and your link.

  13. Haven’t read Horace McCoy: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? but i did Excerpt-Read Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which also has one of these catchy 1960’s novel titles, like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Some 1960’s films have them as well: Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), for example.. So much so that you’ll rightly feel that you’ve already read them, or seen them, before you’ve actually laid a hand on them..

  14. Linda, you made me laugh out loud. I noticed the apostrophe and thought, even Linda Grant makes mistakes! I hate it when I do that on a site where I can’t correct it.

    JS, I think I will look out for this book, not least because it’s been dubbed as a book that right-wingers hate. 🙂

  15. We should acknowledge a shift here. Bristol Palin, surely an example of a young right winger, was a finalist on Dancing With The Stars, despite the fact(s) that she can’t dance and isn’t a star. So it would appear that the modern right has adopted the modern version of the dance marathon as a tactic of its own.

  16. It’s been about 4 years since the last comment, it seems. I wonder if you will read this. Maybe I will remember to return and see.

    So anyway, it’s all mine today I guess. I remember seeing this film on TV some moody Saturday or Sunday afternoon when I was young and it firmly established something that was not in my youthful frame of reference – until then – that life could be “not worth living” AND you can end it. Whew! What a thing to realize for a kid who is just, you know, living and eating cereal… and as far as kids are concerned that could go on forever! (As long as there’s Christmas and birthdays – that’s a pretty good deal.) Anyway, I don’t think your review was as dismissive of the book as you might feel. the story is a simple premise, journey and conclusion and not one to revisit for entertainment purposes. I don’t know why Michael Sarrazin andt his film crossed my mind today, but I found your review and thought I’d chime in.

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