Friday, March 29, 2013

Book Review: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

They Shoot Horses, Don't they? by Horace McCoy

Brief Synopsis: 
In the height of the Great Depression, two young Hollywood hopefuls with empty pockets meet and decide to hitch their dreams on a marathon dance. They are forced to stay on their feet for weeks on end, swaying, dancing, and competing in "derbies" in which they heel-toe around a track like racehorses, fighting to stay in the contest one more day where they might be "discovered" by a director and win a $1000 prize. Robert and Gloria explore the limits of their humanity and the jagged edges of mercy.

Published: 1935

Format read: eBook (I read this on my shiny new Kindle Paperwhite, but if I had it to do over, I would have sought out a floppy old mass market paperback, well used with musty, yellowed pages. There is just something about reading a moody book full of grit and truth in a format that mirrors that experience. Sometimes eBooks are just

Genre: Most often considered "crime noir", but there is a lot of character and symbolism to chew on here.

Comparison: It is kind of a cross between The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds by Paul Zindel. It is set in the Depression and centered around characters who are struggling with internal demons amid a parallel event, in this case a dance marathon, that shakes up their insides until they froth out on the surface and soak into the ground.

There is an element of the gray desperation that permeates The Grapes of Wrath but without Steinbeck's peculiar eye for simple beauty and hopefulness. Short, tight, and dramatic, it has a little of the flavor of Marigolds, but in an inverted form. The depraved enmity and bitterness shown by Beatrice in Marigolds is also present in Gloria from Horses, as are Tillie's hardiness and (to a lesser extent) faith present in Robert, though in this case, they are basically dumped over his head, worthless as water.

Review: This novel did not fare well in the US when it was first released. It was not until the deep days of WWII that it found its way into the hands of French existentialists. They were a natural audience, given the contrast between Robert's "take it as it comes" attitude and Gloria's fatalistic bitterness.

Robert finds meaning in life through whatever opportunities present themselves, and he desires to become a director of short films that demonstrate the daily lives of average people. Some could argue that he invented reality television, but that's neither here nor there.

Gloria, on the other hand, has no meaning in life and nothing to strive for. She's not even striving to strive. The dance marathon is so symbolic of the way she has lived her life until that point--moving, moving, moving, resting for shattered moments, patching up only the most broken bits, and doing so only waiting to see how long it takes until it all ends. She is simply through with the world and everything in it. She doesn't care about anyone's feelings because she doesn't care about her own.

An existentialist might say that the world means only what a person brings to it, and Gloria comes with empty hands--limp, painful, empty hands. When Robert comes to realize that she is broken and that she will never be able to hold onto any sort of meaning which would bring her anything but misery, he has to resort to his own internal framework for right and wrong and must act based on his own personal experiences of mercy.

This novel is a tight one, so tight you could probably bounce a quarter off the cover and end up with two dimes and a nickel. It's almost like a play and has been adapted for the stage and screen. The novel is in first person POV, but even then doesn't linger much in Robert's inner monologue, and when it does, it is worth it.

There are some spots when a little more color could have been dabbed on to make the setting and characters more vivid, but somehow the drab tone works. It becomes experiential--the tone of the novel mimics for the reader what the characters are feeling, which is predominantly dehumanization. They are numb, they are holed up in a dark, sweaty space, and they are shuffled around from trough to trailer to track until they fall on their faces. 

The absence of "color" offers the reader a heightened sense of contrast, just like going outside after a long time in a darkened room. There is one notable passage when Robert dances his way into a triangle of sunlight streaming through a window. He stays in that triangle, swaying, until it creeps all the way up his body, finally standing on his tiptoes so that it can linger on his face as long as possible before leaving him back in the dark. Later, a character leaves under duress and Robert finds himself staring through the crack in the door as he goes, drinking in a flash of red from a fiery sunset. Though he should have felt sorry for the character's departure, he states that it had been the greatest part of his day because he had been allowed to see the sun. When Robert and Gloria finally go outside, there is a brief but beautiful passage detailing Robert's first breaths of sea air after being inside for nearly 900 hours:

"It was after two o' clock in the morning. The air was damp and thick and clean. It was so thick and so clean that I could feel my lungs biting it off in huge chunks." 

He's hungry, so hungry. What a great way to show it. 

One of the things I enjoyed about this novel is the way McCoy layers on the symbolism. Maybe he meant to, maybe he didn't, but that's one of the most important tenets of understanding art: it is a collaboration between creator and consumer. Either way, there were some elements that were striking to me, and in keeping with the kinds of literature that we normally consider "higher station" (which doesn't mean a heck of a lot to me).

Pay special attention to the parallels between the lives of these "kids" and the lives of horses. They are forced to compete in "derbies," in which the male partners have special belts for their female partners to hold onto, like a jockey on a horse. They are herded and fed and offered sleep and medical care insofar as it keeps them on the dance floor. Once they are past their point of usefulness or turn up last in a derby, they are little more than dog meat.

There appeared to be some parallels between Robert's shifting view of the Pacific Ocean and his shifting view of life. He mentions that he comes to resent the Pacific, which rolls endlessly under his feet beneath the dance floor without his permission. This becomes symbolic of life rolling along, vast and ageless, knocking us off our balance and driving us mad with its persistence.

This is not a book to read after a rough day, and it is certainly not going to leave you with a smile. However, if you pay attention and dig for the nut in the shell, you'll find that it leaves you with a lot to think about that is worth thinking about. It can be read in one good-sized setting, and I think it benefits from that kind of momentum. It adds a sort of meta-effect that strengthens the emotional resonance of the book. If you get tired of reading it, it just gives you a tiny taste of the what the dance marathon is doing to the characters. Where you, reader, become antsy and start thinking about the leftovers in the fridge, the characters are coming apart at the seams, worn to their washed-out bones.

I'm planning on seeking out the 1969 Sydney Pollack film, which I know took a lot of liberties and stretched out the narrative like a stiff piece of taffy. Even so, it has a great rep among film buffs, and I'm eager to see Pollack's interpretation of this little book. It sure does pack a punch. 

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