by Ed Gorman & Max Allan Collins
HORACE McCOY – They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1935. Reprinted several times, including Penguin Signet #670, paperback, 1948; Berkley #108, paperback, 1955; Avon SS10, paperback, 1966; and included in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s, Library of America, hardcover, 1997. Film: Cinerama, 1969; director: Sydney Pollack.
The basic plot of Horses is simple enough. In Hollywood during the early years of the depression, two young people, Robert and Gloria, meet and decide to become partners in a marathon dance contest. They need the prize money desperately. And there’s always the possibility that they will be “discovered” by a talent scout in the crowd of onlookers. Robert and Gloria both have aspirations of being stars. This seems to be just one more sweaty and forlorn part of the necessary ritual.
There are other characters in the novel, of course — Rocky the emcee, the quintessential cynic; the Reverend Oscar Gilder, who manages to debase even the notion of God; and assorted doomed figures, each alive only to his or her pain, who grind in endless circles on the dance floor- but Robert and Gloria remain the indisputable focus of the book. Early on she says, “Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it? There must be a hell of a lot of people in the world like me — who want to die but haven’t got the guts.”
And so we have Gloria, failed beauty, misery addict, in a life perfectly symbolized by a marathon dance: You dance till you drop, literally, in a process without dignity or meaning.
McCoy’s novel is told in fragments — in effect, flash-forwards as well as flashbacks. Robert’s narration is interspersed with the words of the judge who sentences Robert to death, for we know from page one that Robert killed Gloria. The burden of the book is to explain why — much as, in a similar work, Orson Welles hung the life of Citizen Kane on “Rosebud” as a way to drive the narrative.
“It was the first time I had ever seen her smile,” Robert says in the first fragment. He refers to the last look on Gloria’s face before he pulled the trigger. Then: “I was her very best friend. I was her only friend.” That, of course, was why he killed her — because he was her friend and because she asked him to. It was perhaps the one transcendent act of his life. Not that society understands. Robert will be executed for his action.
In almost every respect — from the bitter tone of the narrative, to the complicated ethics of killing somebody out of mercy, to the curiously innocent perceptions of Robert as revealed in key scenes — Horses is arguably the most original novel in American literary history. Sartre and the French existentialists agreed, embracing it as one of the great novels of their movement; its success in France far exceeded its impact here.
McCoy had hoped that the novel would free him from Hollywood and studio hackwork. It didn’t. Like Robert, he was doomed to a dance that would go on and on until he dropped (literally, from a heart attack). Yet Horses remains a “perfect” book — perfect in the way a poem can be but a novel almost never is. It is both dirge and hymn and is without peer in the language.
Horses was filmed in 1969, starring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, and Gig Young (as the master of ceremonies, a role which won him an Oscar).
McCoy’s other works are tough-guy in flavor, certainly; but like Horses they are concerned (as critic Paul Buck puts it) with “social comment rather than crime.” I Should Have Stayed Home (1938) deals with a naive extra coping with a Hollywood that couldn’t care less about him. Somewhat neglected, this novel is worth a look; although its criminous aspects are tangential, the crisp prose and dark out make it read like a particularly good James M. Cain novel, minus the murder. No Pockets in a Shroud (1959)is a somewhat autobiographical crusading-reporter tale. McCoy’s posthumous Corruption City (1959) is, like Chandler’s Playback published the previous year, a novelization of an unproduced screen treatment.
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.