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News & Views of Phillips Since 1976
Monday May 20th 2024

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They

from the series Something I Said…


a photo of the author
Dwight Hobbes

Horace McCoy’s Depression Era classic, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Simon & Schuster), may inspire you to get up on a drizzling, overcast morning and go slit your throat. Simone de Beauvoir lauded it as “The first existentialist novel to have appeared in America” and, sure enough, it’s a grim portrayal of man’s desperate inhumanity to man. And woman.

It is a deftly crafted indictment of life, itself. We witness two down-and-outers trying to get a leg up in their hard scrabbled lives. Robert, dreaming of directing film, rakes and scrapes by, hired now and then as an extra. He comes across Gloria, whose best acting prospects fled with her youth. She sees the rose through world colored glasses. They end up unlikely partners in a grueling dance marathon, taking a shot at the $1500 prize. That amount of money is still nothing to sneeze at. In those days, it was a fortune. Along with, for these two, a clutch at straw, in case a studio scout or casting director has employment as an extra.

Over several weeks on their feet, the contest gradually wears and tears everyone down to just how badly they want, hoping against all hope, to not just survive, but prevail. It becomes a living hell where the tormentor, indeed, is hope. Though the ending is revealed at the opening, there is no way to be prepared for the sucker-punch conclusion. Characters drive themselves crazy for a snowball’s chance at the brass ring until life is worth nothing unless you grab that ring. Isn’t even worth living. Which is what happens here. At the end of one’s wits, nerves frayed and your mind so brain drained, reason doesn’t make sense and you blindly stagger one foot after the other, to all intent and purpose, a zombie.

Gloria is richly drawn, someone who lost at life and is bitter about it. Hence her constant sarcasm and readiness to tell anyone off about anything. For instance she asks Mothers’ League bible thumpers’, “Do you know where [your daughters are] tonight and what they’re doing? While you two noble characters are here doing your duty…your daughters are probably in some guy’s apartment, their clothes off, getting drunk.” Peter by direct comparison is a milquetoast. Has a big heart and wants to get along with the world. That big heart will prove to be their undoing as this odd couple’s lives collide, unalterably changed, toward a tragic end.

Sydney Pollock’s movie version of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (ABC Pictures) is available on DVD.

Dwight Hobbes is a long-time Twin Cities journalist and essayist.

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