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.