Monday, July 09, 2012

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

I've just finished book three in the Beach Noir Book Club, and it's, well.... you know how they say certain hardboiled writing is like a punch to the gut? Well this is more like if your own mother punched you in the gut while your father hit you over the head with a tire iron. If you find that image a little bleak, then you have an idea of the utter unremitting bleakness of this book. My god, the bleak!

So we all know the plot -- a marathon dance contest, the Depression, a girl named Gloria who hates herself and wants to die, a protagonist named Robert who dances because he doesn't know where his next meal is coming from.... almost no one in the contest does. Most of them are literally dancing for food and shelter. Things happen, people move in and out of the contest. The participants and organizers are revealed to be liars, cheats, adulterers, murders. And at the end of all... well, may god have mercy on your soul.

The first thing that struck me about Horses was the uncanny similarity to certain aspects of The Hunger Games, which I also read this year. I mean, they even have sponsors in the contest, who provide dancers with things like clothes and shoes. And they're hungry... soul crushingly hungry.

The other thing that hit home was the seediness of the beachside pavilion. Beaches are amazingly dark places and they turn on a dime -- one minute, sunny and glorious, but watch your back when the sun goes down. Then beaches are loci of murder, dumping grounds for bodies as the sea takes back her dead. And have you ever seen a beach town when it starts to rain? People running off the boardwalk with towels over their heads? It already looks like a crime scene....

They Shoot Horses is unforgettable. The imagery of the seedy seaside danse macabre in the darkest days of the depression is forever etched onto me. The swiftness, the unsentimentality of it is shattering. Characters are only sketchily drawn, because they are barely human. Gloria is a wounded animal, snarling. Robert drifts through the book because he has nowhere else to go. There's an amazing scene where he talks to one of his heroes, Frank Borzage (Robert is an aspiring film director, with great taste) and at the end of their conversation, nothing happens. No one is going to pick you up and carry you off and make your Hollywood dreams come true.

Like I said: bleak.

So, book club geeks -- thoughts?


Elizabeth Twist said...

Wow. I haven't read this book, but now I want to. I remember seeing the film when I was an insomniac and impressionable teen (I'm still insomniac and impressionable). I remember feeling dried up and devastated at the end.

Anyhoo, nice to meet you.

Flicker said...

OK, I read this very quickly (just back from vacation, and yes, we spent a day at the beach). And I thought the writing was quite good. I was thoroughly engrossed, read the whole thing pretty much at one sitting. But somehow the story didn't gel for me, and I think it's because the narrator, Robert, didn't seem particularly downtrodden. Yes, he's broke and going nowhere fast, but he still has some spunk, he still has dreams, he still can enjoy the sunset. I really believed, reading the story, that he could have been all right, even if his dreams didn't work out. He's young, he'll bounce back. Gloria is a mess, clearly, and Robert can see that, and helps her out the only way he can. I suppose that's the "noir" -- the only character who seems like he might survive just flat out blows it.

Some of the things that stood out for me were (1) the fact that they were all GAINING weight while dancing nonstop for weeks on end (because obviously they'd been more or less starving before); (2) the pathetic awfulness of the dusty "trysting" place under the platform; (3) the profanity and openness about bodies -- the jockstrap discussions, allusions to the women's menstrual periods, Ruby's pregnancy; (4) the idea of someone participating in a contest like that while several months pregnant; (5) and the "wedding" -- this reminded me uncomfortably of the time that we had a similar stunt (yet real) wedding at the polar bear swim that my husband used to organize.

Anyway, although I didn't quite buy it, I did find it quite compelling and won't soon forget it.

Andrea Janes said...

Dried up and devastated. Yup. Flicker, I agree that Robert's decision to shoot Gloria was weird. But I wonder if it had something to do with the old lady who was his champion dying (I forget her name! but I think when she got hit with the stray bullet that was the end of his chances for life after the dance-a-thon). And I definitely agree with you on the bodily creepiness that permeates the book... I think that's what makes them seem more animal than human. The weight gain is definitely the most disturbing aspect of that. Yes, they must've been starving before. I think that's what made me think of The Hunger Games. Starving people, cavorting to the point of death for our amusement. Anyhoo, thanks for your always insightful comments! And I forgot to mention this before but while reading the book, I was drinking beer.

Mike Lyon said...

Sorry that I'm so late to the party, but I just finished the book! Beautifully written and ever-so-nasty. In the span of the first 7 pages you get intimations of murder, abortion, lesbianism, incest, thievery, adultery and suicide - McCoy wants to push ALL THE BUTTONS and he has a very short time to do it so he better get down to brass tacks. More than once, I was a little floored that this thing was written in 1935.

It's amazing how all these older noir books intersect with Hollywood. The main characters are both trying to get work as extras in a “Russian picture” by Josef von Sternberg (probably THE SCARLET EMPRESS), and Robert dreams of being "more important than Sergei Eisenstein". All that glitz and glamor just out of reach seems to be a pervasive theme in this literature.

I suppose it’s not even that it’s out of reach in “They Shoot Horses”, it’s that not only are the protagonists not going to achieve anything, they are going to fail completely in the process. Anyone good-hearted, even superficially, is beaten or shot or worse. Everyone fails. Everyone dies. They just pile on the indignities, killing little old ladies and talking about Robert’s small dick…

Moreover, I was amazed that McCoy could make such a surreal subject so goddamn fascinating. During the final derby sequence right before the wedding I think my palms were sweating. It’s so exciting, and yet so terrible and grim, and it’s *marathon dancing* for chrissakes! The crushing atmosphere of the dancehall becomes so tangible – it’s easy to imagine all these people just very slowly walking in circles in a dusty old converted warehouse, a single shaft of light shining down from a high window.

Towards the end of the book, Robert realizes that “There is no new experience in life. Something may happen to you that you think has never happened before, that you think is brand new, but you are mistaken.” Even right up to the end, as he is being driven away to his death, he thinks back to the death of a beloved horse and realizes he has already experienced all the emotions on that subject, just at a further remove. Some of these books feel like a sucker punch, but this one was like going 12 rounds with a heavyweight champion. While you’re tied to a chair.