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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
2.25.2003 by Julian, every Tuesday.


Gloria Beatty, the heroine of Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? has a really bad attitude:
‘It’s peculiar to me,’ she said, ‘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 must be a hell of a lot of people in the world like me—who want to die but haven’t got the guts—’
Gloria’s incredibly depressing personality is what drives the book. She’s so depressing to be around that our protagonist, an idealistic wannabe movie director, named Robert Syverton, eventually decides to put her out of her misery. The book begins with Robert’s trial and the story is told in flashbacks of the dance marathon that he and Gloria participated in.

The dance marathon is a strange and sadistic form of entertainment. The rules are simple: you have to keep in continuous motion; the last couple standing wins a cash prize. Competitors are provided with food, and are allowed a ten-minute break after every two-hours of dancing.

Apparently, dance marathons were an extremely popular form of entertainment during the Depression. Couples would sign up for the free food and a shot at the prize, and audiences would come to watch the dancers gradually die of exhaustion. The longest dance marathon on record lasted 22 weeks!

Dance marathons were eventually banned in most states, and in the book, the Mothers’ League for Good Morals tries to shut down the one that Gloria and Robert participate in. This prompts Gloria to say:
You Morals League and your goddam women’s clubs, filled with meddlesome old bitches who haven’t had a — in twenty years. Why don’t you old dames go out and buy a — once in a while?
Yep, Gloria has a really bad attitude. Back in the 30s, pronouncing dashes out loud was considered the worst of insults.

The utterly pointless, tedious, exhausting marathon dance parallels Gloria’s outlook on life. “Before I met you,” says Robert, “I didn’t see how I could miss succeeding. I never even thought of failing. And now—’ Now Robert is about to be executed for murdering Gloria. It’s a depressing book all right.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is blunt, lurid, and above all depressing. The writing is simple and straightforward, and yet the dance marathon is so weird that it seems almost surrealist. It’s also a short book, easy to read in one sitting, which is good, because just reading about dancing for 879 hours straight is exhausting.




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