They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy

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They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: This book was a runaway success when published in the 1930s and it's now hailed as an American classic. It's steeped in the era of the Great Depression where hordes of young people, largely with no future prospects, take part in a dance marathon - with chilling results.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 128 Date: November 2010
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1846687396

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Many of us will know of the release of the film of the same title back in the 1960s. I haven't seen the film so I started reading with no ready-made opinions about the book. Likewise, I had no idea how the attention-grabbing title bore any relation to a book about dance. I was about to find out. It's both arresting and simple. The book cover and also the inside front cover are littered with praise for this book. The first existentialist novel to have appeared in America says one writer. Takes the reader into one of America's darkest corners ... from another source. So, I was expecting a terrific read. But did I get it?

What struck me straight away was the original and quirky lay-out. Often, only a handful of words (but words to chill the heart nevertheless) appear, as if lost, on the page. I was impressed with McCoy's creativity. Chapter one tells us that a young girl called Gloria is dead. We're told this news in the formal language of a court room. The person accused is confused. He wants to shout out to everyone that they've got it all wrong. How could they be so stupid. They should be thanking him for what he did. After all, he knew Gloria. They didn't Now I don't know about you but that's what I call a cracking, good start to a story and I couldn't wait to find out what happened next. In truth, I was hooked by the very first four words of the book.

The questions running through the mind of this young man are incredulous, unbelievable, heart-wrenching and also just plain sad. The book is written in the first person. It's his story, poor sod. And McCoy drags us in, right in to the heart of the matter. I asked myself several times if this young man was perhaps insane, lost his mind. Then I got to know him a little better and I stopped asking the question. I knew the answer.

The meeting between these two young people - boy and girl started out innocently enough. Both at a loss as to what to do about jobs, money, a hot meal. I could almost see them kicking up their heels in the dust, in frustration. We find out early on that Gloria is star-struck. She'll do anything to get a bit part in a movie. But she's been having a tough time. She appears old beyond her years. She suggests they pair up and enter this local dance marathon. There's free food and free bed ... All they have to do is dance till they drop basically. Last pair standing wins the prize money. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? And McCoy ruthlessly gives the reader all the gory details - the tiredness, the aching limbs - and much, much worse. We soon see the organizers of the event in their true colours. It's not a pretty sight. Much of this seemingly innocuous story made me stop and think. The dancers are reduced to a number - so much easier than trying to remember names, after all. Prisoners have numbers. These kids are free agents. Or are they?

McCoy's writing centres around the Great Depression. His novel charts the mind-numbing progress of this blasted dance marathon. Yes, I was getting heartily sick of all the statistics etc and that's the whole point, of course and is down to the author's brilliant writing. The reader is drip-fed the tiniest slivers of details about the young man accused. And the very last line stopped me in my tracks. It certainly squared the circle. This novel is a compelling portrait of a particular time and place. Recommended.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then try Brooklyn by Colm Toibin.

Buy They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy at

Buy They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy at


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