Sunday, October 10, 2010

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1935)

Horace McCoy is another newspaperman of the Great Depression who turned to crime fiction after arriving in California, followed shortly by a career and steady work as a screenplay writer. His first novel eventually became a movie, but that wasn’t until nearly 15 years after his death. As with a surprising number of the novels that series editor Robert Polito collected for the Library of America two-volume set of crime novels, it's as inventive and sure-footed as it is dour and gritty. In this case, some typographical stunts help ground the basic setting of the novel in a courtroom at the moment sentence is pronounced, with the context gradually filled in by a series of extended flashbacks. Robert Syverten, the narrator, and the defendant, is a bit of a Jimmy Stewart character, by temperament anyway, who has shown up in Hollywood to make his fortune. He meets Gloria Beatty, a few years older and far more chewed by the Hollywood grind of the time, which feels alive with detail. Both need to make money and Gloria suggests the marathon dance, an event that fortuitously is just about to start when they meet. It's a foolish idea, of course, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and as the details of their participation slowly unfold it becomes apparent just how desperate those times and measures were. Marathon dances went on for days and weeks and months. Contestants here are allowed a 10-minute break every two hours and otherwise go around the clock; that break time must be used for eating and cleaning as well as sleeping. Contestants are required to keep moving to stay qualified, which necessitates partners taking turns sleeping on their feet while the other drags them around the floor. Periodic events such as footraces are also staged to liven it up for the sake of drawing crowds and cruelly to eliminate couples more quickly. For something that may seem from our vantage as quaint and goofy as stuffing telephone booths or swallowing goldfish, it quickly becomes evident what these things really were, and it's no wonder they were eventually outlawed. Gloria, for her part, remains resolutely a complete and relentless downer, bitter to the core—that has something to do with her eventual demise, an act perhaps more effectively framed as one of mercy than malice. The book is no marathon itself but rather another quick, pointed, and sprint-like exercise that nonetheless seems to get well under the skin of its times.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

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