They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? ~ A Capsule Book Review

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Horace McCoy was a little-known American writer who lived from 1897 to 1955. His most famous work was his 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?. It’s set entirely at a dance marathon in a seedy ballroom in Santa Monica, California, at the height of the Great Depression.

What’s a dance marathon, you might ask? It was where young people (and some not so young) danced (ballroom style) without surcease (with brief rest periods), before a paying audience. It was a test of the contestants’ endurance. As long as the contestants could keep going, they had a chance to win a thousand-dollar jackpot. If they stopped dancing or became ill, they were automatically disqualified. (If one member of a team dropped out, the other member had a certain amount of time to find another partner.) The idea was that the contestants, most of whom had no job and no place to live, would at least have a place to stay and food to eat as long as they stayed in the marathon. It could possibly go on for months, until only one couple was left standing.

The two main characters (dance contestants) are Gloria Beatty and Robert Styvesent. Gloria is a tried-and-failed movie actress, depressed and suicidal, who couldn’t get listed with Central Casting. Robert also has dreams of motion picture fame, but as a director instead of an actor. Gloria and Robert are sad, tired and disillusioned, and they don’t know what the future holds for them—probably only more shattered dreams and more heartache. We know from the start that the whole thing (the dance marathon or life in general) is not going to end well for them.

Many of the couples are eliminated with nightly “sprints” around the perimeter of the dance floor. You don’t have to be first in the sprint to remain in the marathon, but if you’re last, you’re going to get bounced. The teams struggle to hang on. Each believes they have a shot at the jackpot and—who knows?—there might be movie talent scouts in the audience any evening and someone will be “discovered.” It’s a brutal, demeaning spectacle—and the audience eats it up!

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is the only American novel of the 1930s of its kind about a dance marathon. It’s a gritty slice of life about the down-side of Hollywood. There’s nothing sweet, hopeful or life-affirming about it. Only pain, failure and disappointment. It’s thoroughly fascinating.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp    

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