They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy – review
The ruthlessness of Hollywood is laid bare in Horace McCoy's classic 1935 novel
Survival is all in the harsh world evoked in Horace McCoy's slim yet thematically weighty 1935 novel set in America's Great Depression. How far a human being will go to stay alive is the question at the heart of the unflinching narrative which draws on the author's own experience as a struggling movie extra, and was made into a 1969 film starring the Oscar-nominated Jane Fonda. Little wonder that book became a favourite among French existentialists.
First-person narrator Robert has been loitering outside Paramount studios on the day he meets his nemesis, the embittered, nihilistic Gloria, another extra. Far from being paramount to anything, these drifters are painfully peripheral. Gloria has run away from a "hell of a place", tried to poison herself, and vacillates between thoughts of stardom and suicide. Survival for Robert and Gloria means selling their souls to sustain their bodies, in "dance marathons" held in an amusement pier above the Pacific Ocean, where the sea, pounding inexorably day and night, becomes a haunting symbol. The ruthless dance competitions provide food and shelter as long as participants can "keep moving". The hope is that these degrading shows will tempt Hollywood executives to give participants a "big break", but what is broken are hearts and minds as McCoy skilfully unmasks a violent, seedy underworld beneath the revelry.
The brutality of the story is offset by the poetic beauty and precision of McCoy's narrative as it hones in on the thoughts and aspirations of its outsider characters, their troubled voices lingering in the mind. In our world of fleeting reality TV stardom, this stark, urgent novel feels more timely than ever.
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