HORACE MCCOY knew failure intimately. In 1931 he left behind a successful career in journalism and pulp writing in Dallas to pursue acting in Los Angeles, only to fall into two years of manual labor. He published his first novel to modest acclaim but would find no audience for over a decade. He turned to churning out screenplays, as many as four a year, but stunted his artistic ambitions in the process. By the time he died in 1955 at the age of 58, his finances were so depleted that his book and record collections had to be sold in order to cover his burial. Such tales of artistic failure are hardly unique, and to rehash so dour a procession would be cruel, if only McCoy had not proven himself an exceptional case. Artistic success, whether premortem or postmortem, is hard enough on its own; it seems harder still to face down failure with such an unflinching stare and to make actual art out of it — good art, at that.
This intimacy with failure is perhaps the easiest way to understand what drives McCoy’s debut novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, as we look back at it, 80 years after its publication. The novel is not autobiographical in the strictest sense, yet it is infused with dejection, desperation, and fatalism. The naked force of the book implies a closeness with failure, not just the failures of McCoy himself but of those whom he struggled alongside in the Depression of the 1930s, as well. Coming a year after James M. Cain’s brutal, barebones short novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, similarly titled and toned on the surface, was read as a hardboiled fairytale. The Saturday Review of Literature called it “brutal,” and The Nation “lurid.” Yet success was not forthcoming. Sales dropped off after the initial print run. While Postman sold well and was banned at least once, They Shoot Horses was simply shunned.
All the same, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is the only one of Horace McCoy’s novels that has remained consistently in print over the past few decades. It has enticed as much as it has repelled — in that, it is the essence of a cult object, even as the line between cultic transgression and mainstream quirk seems increasingly faint. The cult of Horses endures, and its transgressions against simple notions of lives well lived and friends well made retain their currency.
“It’s peculiar to me […] that everybody pays so much attention to living and so little to dying. Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it?” There in the third chapter of the 121-page novel is its thesis, though it’s less of a thesis and more of a clarion call as the book progresses. The speaker is Gloria Beatty, and the listener is Robert Syverten, the story’s narrator; they are failed actors who cross paths, having been thwarted in an attempt to get work as extras. It is their first conversation at the start of a brief but intense partnership as contestants in a marathon dance. By the novel’s end, Gloria will be dead by Robert’s hand. We know this, though, from the first chapter:
I stood up. For a moment I saw Gloria again sitting on that bench on the pier. The bullet had struck her in the side of the head; the blood had not even started to flow. The flash from the pistol still lighted her face. Everything was as plain as day. She was completely relaxed and completely comfortable … I did not have a perfect profile view but I could see enough of her face and her lips to know she was smiling.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a crime novel that is uniquely impatient when it comes to laying out the actual crime, preferring instead to methodically focus on the crime’s causes, to an agonizing degree. It is a crime novel in which the crime is not a matter of suspense but of making sense.
McCoy’s own acting career was stillborn when he arrived in Los Angeles. Though he screen-tested at the behest of a casting representative for MGM, it was based entirely on his time spent in community theater. The parts he managed to get were too small to credit and any actual titles are entirely speculative. When acting finally gave out, he fell into a string of odd jobs such as field hand, soda jerk, and bodyguard. Somewhere around that time, however, he had been hired as a bouncer for a Santa Monica dance marathon. His life turned at that moment, leading first to his writing a screenplay called Marathon Dancers. The script was never produced but earned him a contract with RKO that started his prolific career as a screenwriter. Out of the rejected script came his first novel.
Much like the figure of the train-hopping hobo, the dance marathon is an artifact of the Great Depression, often viewed more as a quirk than as a condition. It has functioned as a way of sanitizing America’s economic collapse of the 1930s for the more prosperous generations, but the dance marathon was a grueling ordeal rendered as spectacle. The business attracted amateur dancers all over the country and used up to 20,000 employees for production and promotion. It was a garish collecting and discarding of economic refuse. “In appearance they were modeled on a radical version of social Darwinism,” writes Carol J. Martin in her study Dance Marathons: Performing American Culture of the 1920s and 1930s, “where the fittest would not just survive but triumph and win cash prizes.” Marathons played to massive crowds in tents, armories, and auditoriums. Contestants were disqualified if they stopped moving at all, with 10-minute breaks every two hours for contestants to eat, sleep, bathe or get treated for injury. Medical personnel were on hand; so too were professional dancers, if the outcome was staged.
Out of this spectacle McCoy creates a sheer frenzy of physical and emotional torture, to which his two protagonists willfully submit themselves. At first, Gloria and Robert form a partnership of opportunistic convenience; over the course of the 36-day marathon, it mutates into a bleak codependency. Hopes and motivations, of being discovered or otherwise rescued, dissipate along with their physical stamina, leaving only the will to get through it. The atmosphere McCoy creates is one of chaos, of a motor-mouthed emcee, a blaring big band, a barely controllable crowd filled with young celebrities and brute lowlifes in equal measure, and of increasingly maddening derby races held every night, in which the contestants are strapped to their partners with belts and made to speed walk for the audience’s amusement. Or at least attempt to:
“Stand by No. 35,” yelled [emcee] Rocky Gravo, but before a nurse or trainer could reach her she fell on her face, sliding a couple of feet across the floor …
“Look out!” I yelled, but the warning was too late to do any good. Gloria stumbled over the body, pulling me down with her, and the next thing I knew four of five couples were piled together on the floor, struggling to get up. Rocky said something into the microphone and the crowd gasped.
As an atmospheric writer, McCoy has few equals. Gloria, Robert, and 138 other contestants isolate themselves in a topsy-turvy, grisly commune full of orgiastic abandon. As blunt and brazen as Cain’s realism, McCoy’s pacing and ferocity skews much closer to black comedy, with the punch lines disjointed or left completely blank:
It was Mrs. Layden, a single hole in front of her forehead … [Her] head slowly turned sideways and a little pool of blood that had collected in the crater of her eye spilled out on the floor.
John Maxwell saw Gloria and me.
‘She was coming around to be a judge in the derby,’ he said. “She was hit by a stray bullet — ”
“I wish it was me — ” Gloria said under her breath.
“Goddam — ” Socks Donald said.
The melee surrounds, envelops, and engulfs Robert and Gloria. McCoy left Robert to be the final witness of the entire ordeal, eager to tell any story to anyone who would listen. Robert’s voice is not so much tragic as it is pathetic. He regales us with laughable, false hopes:
I was on a boat going to Port Said. I was on the way to the Sahara Desert to make that picture. I was famous and I had plenty of money. I was the most important picture director in the world. I was more important than Sergei Eisenstein. The critics of Vanity Fair and Esquire had agreed that I was a genius. I was walking on the deck, thinking of that marathon dance I had once been in, wondering what had become of those boys and girls, when something hit me a terrific blow in the back of the head, knocking me unconscious. I had a feeling I was falling.
Robert, of course, gets none of it; he doesn’t even get the last word. The reader, indeed, would have been content to never have known him at all, had Gloria not invited him, in chapter three, to the park, so that they could “hate a bunch of people.”
Edmund Wilson took McCoy’s work to task for its “lack of characterization, lack of motivation,” which is fair if one considers that McCoy’s world was one of inhuman, anti-human exploitation. Yet Wilson was too entranced by McCoy’s depiction of the “grisly symptoms” of the Depression to fully appreciate Gloria Beatty, certainly one of the best characters McCoy ever created, and one of the most memorable and perversely affecting characters in noir fiction — perhaps even in American literature. Her personal malignancy at once predates the coddled sociopathy of Holden Caulfield, and outshines him and successive antiheroes in the earthbound hardness of McCoy’s style. Escaping familial abuse in Texas, Gloria found no respite in coming to Hollywood. Her disposition shifts between having nothing to lose and having already lost. “I wish I could get killed in a war,” she admits outright. “Why don’t you quit the movies?” replies Robert.
‘Why should I?’ she said. ‘I may get to be a star overnight. Look at Hepburn and Margaret Sullavan and Josephine Hutchinson […] but I’ll tell you what I would do if I had the guts: I’d walk out of a window or throw myself out of a street car or something.’
Defeated as she feels, Gloria is not one to sulk. Indeed, her volatile rage burns and blisters anyone with whom she comes into contact. When local moral crusaders attempt to shut down the marathon, she unleashes a toxic invective:
‘It’s time someone got women like you told,’ Gloria said, moving over and standing with her back to the door, as if to keep them in,‘and I’m just the baby to do it. You’re the kind of bitches who sneak in the toilet to read dirty books and tell filthy stories and then go out and try to spoil somebody else’s fun — ’
“She’s not depressed,” a character — perhaps the only sympathetic one — warns Robert. “She’s bitter. She hates everything and everybody. She’s cruel and she’s dangerous.” Robert is aware of this, yet he persists, in what is perhaps the only truly glaring motivational hole in Horses. They go in together simply because they are there. They are not professedly lonely; it does not appear that they would otherwise need each other. Yet the closed-in dynamic of the marathon keeps them there, literally tethered to one another. It is by no means love. Robert and Gloria spend much of the novel infatuated with other things, none of them people. “Before I met you,” Robert tells her, “I didn’t see how I could miss succeeding. I never even thought of failing. And now — ” In the first chapter, when he is on trial, he claims he was “her very best friend … her only friend.” When Robert realized this and what it meant isn’t made clear. Perhaps he realized it when he knew that Gloria “certainly would have been better off dead.” Or perhaps he realized it just before he pulled the trigger, when “it was the first time I had ever seen her smile.” Or perhaps he realized it when the police asked him why he did it, prompting him to compare her to the titular horses. Violence is easy to get swept up in, making it just as easy to overlook McCoy’s parting kiss-off. He created a character who was beyond loneliness, love, or the possibility of redemption, and he declined to judge her.
For the remainder of the 1930s and over the course of the 1940s, McCoy would struggle to attain any portion of novelistic greatness. He wasn’t alone by any means at that time; Nathanael West and William Faulkner remained obscure to varying degrees, and all three sunk into more lucrative but less artistically fruitful careers as screenwriters. As with West’s and Faulkner’s, McCoy’s film work is decidedly forgettable. Contracted by Paramount, he turned out scripts for various genre and B-grade films, certainly nothing that would breach the middlebrow. Published in 1937, McCoy’s second novel, No Pockets in a Shroud, was more idealistic than the first, recalling his pre-Los Angeles journalist past. A muckraker wages a crusade against political corruption, perhaps even against the abstract concept itself, with his pen alone, yet the results are no more hopeful than in They Shoot Horses. I Should Have Stayed Home brought him back to Hollywood’s dark side, following another out-of-work extra who, in a plot point presaging Sunset Boulevard, becomes a kept man for a wealthy older woman. It would be his last novel for a decade.
McCoy’s dry spell broke in 1948, very likely in reaction to the discovery in France of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, particularly by the circle of existentialist thinkers who, in the wake of World War II, had become infatuated with what Mary McCarthy called “the dumb paradise of violence” found in writers like Cain. Simone de Beauvoir called They Shoot Horses “the first existential novel to have appeared in America.” McCoy’s resulting comeback, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, has had scarcer print runs but is often held in near-equal esteem as They Shoot Horses. Partial credit for this is perhaps due to the 1950 James Cagney vehicle out of which the book was adapted, but it’s also arguably rooted in the sheer ambition of the book itself.
At nearly three times the length of Horses, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye tells of the decline and fall of Ralph Cotter, a career criminal. He is, he admits, a punk, but he is “a punk with a few small distinctions … including a Phi Beta Kappa key and a university degree and a collection of psychoses for which Doctor Lombroso would have given his left arm.” After a violent but successful escape from a chain gang, Cotter and his posse hole up in an unnamed town, where he reverts to old ways, pulling off heists and maneuvering through a network of local hoods, corrupt cops and lawyers, an ex-governor, and the eccentric, exotic politician’s daughter who falls in love with him. He is a consummate antihero, steeled in scheming pragmatism while blithely committing murder, even when the situation doesn’t require it.
Compared to They Shoot Horses, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is more platonically noir. It is also richer in narrative and characterization; its first-person style is more complex, containing a wider vocabulary and a near-compulsive tendency toward simile (“the bullet hit him in the left eye and a drop of fluid squirted and the eyelid fell over the hole as a window shade over a pane of darkness”). It apes Chandler while stopping short of blunt parody.
It is also the inferior novel. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye lives and dies by its protagonist. Through Cotter we are led into his world, are privy to his thoughts, and are forced to witness his acts. McCoy’s portrait is a dedicated one, full-throated in its explicitly contrasting degeneracy and eloquence, but it lays plain a weakness in McCoy’s abilities. Cotter’s character is one of middling cruelty and monstrous insecurity. He takes every opportunity to convey his intelligence to the reader and the characters alike — not only his academic bona fides, but his sheer superiority. “All you need is dough,” he says. “Christ look at Karpis and Dillinger and Pierpont … Dump all their brains together and you haven’t got enough intelligence to get past the fourth grade.” At his best, he expresses the bitter rage of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, but White’s intelligence is far finer and a much greater asset. In Cotter’s case, it comes off more as color, or as concealer for his clumsy, even parodic, Freudian traumas and irrational impulses. McCoy was not a consummate writer of evil, at least not when compared to Jim Thompson, who, four years after Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, published The Killer Inside Me, starring sadistic cop Lou Ford — without question the most evil fictional character before Hannibal Lecter or Judge Holden, and far more demanding of our fear than McCoy’s Cotter.
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is a decent book, a ghoulishly titillating peek into someone else’s problems. But They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? doesn’t allow many of the thrills that Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and like-minded noir can show us. It is a book that would not have existed had there been no Depression and had McCoy not foolishly quit his day job in the middle of it. I’m too tired to live and too afraid to die is no mere malcontented sentiment. Writers of the time like David Goodis could very well have matched the despair of Gloria Beatty, but not her rage, which shot well above noir’s firmament. Rather than The Postman Always Rings Twice (comparisons to which McCoy always resented), the novel has more affinity with Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up” essays, which appeared in Esquire in 1936. Fitzgerald’s contention that “[A]ll life is a process of breaking down,” though more eloquent by far than Gloria’s speech, is something Gloria would not have contested. Nor does noir match the novel’s amoral frenzy. In the noir family, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is something of an irascible, embittered half-sibling, while it is a deadbeat parent to later transgressive classics such as Crash and Less Than Zero.
To promote They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? to the canon, however, would be to ask it to behave beyond its station and, at the same time, to neuter it. It is not a book that can be enjoyed, but it is one that should attract readers on its own terms, hard terms though they are. Some art does not have or ask to be granted redeeming social value; some art, as J.G. Ballard put it, wants “to rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.” The world in which They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was born may only exist today as a ghost or a half-remembered nightmare, but its melded weariness and ferocity stalks hungrily at the edge of our contentment. And it won’t be satisfied unless we begin to entertain that faint possibility that Gloria was right and that Robert’s crime was just.