They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy. Simon and Schuster (1935), 186 pp.
Robert Sylverten arrived in Los Angeles with the goal of becoming a movie director. Now he’s in court, mulling over the events that led to his murder conviction. The woman Robert shot was his friend and dance partner, Gloria Beatty, a disheartened and embittered film extra with a quick temper and thoughts of suicide. Pointing to the prospect of steady food and lodging for a month or more, she convinced him to join a marathon dance competition at a huge building on the Santa Monica pier. There they met Rocky Gravo, the cheerful master of ceremonies; Socks Donald, the hustling promoter; Mrs. Layden, an eccentric marathon enthusiast; and some of the dozens of other couples in the contest. Robert was prepared for a long haul, but he never imagined its conclusion.
This novella operates on two levels. It provides a detailed account of a dance marathon, the sort of show that was drawing enthusiastic crowds throughout the country in the 1930s. McCoy, who worked as a bouncer at these events, bases his descriptions on first-hand observation. They’re grim but seem completely credible. The book also serves as a metaphor of some sort. With its desperate performers struggling to stay on their feet, its unfeeling customers cheering every mishap, and its promoters exploiting everyone’s degradation for their own profit, the story may represent free enterprise at its most ferocious. Or perhaps the endless movement, with dancers going round and round but getting nowhere, symbolizes life itself. McCoy provokes additional thought by leaving open the question whether the killing can somehow be justified. If readers need further enticement, they’ll be glad to know that the book is very short and can easily be finished in two or three hours.