First published in 1935
When Robert Syverten's defense lawyer tells the judge that Robert did Gloria Beatty a favor by killing her, you know things aren't going well for Robert. As he waits for sentence to be pronounced, he remembers the circumstances that brought him into the criminal justice system. Robert and Gloria met as unemployed Hollywood extras. They decided they might get noticed (and maybe win some cash) by dancing in a marathon. As they dance and interact with the other dancers, many of whom have their own unfortunate stories, Gloria repeatedly tells Robert that she wishes she were dead. She gets her wish.
The dance marathon gives Horace McCoy the chance to examine lives in microcosm under unusual and stressful circumstances. They are often the desperate lives of people struggling to survive in 1935. The contestants submit to grueling, constant exercise in exchange for free food and the slim chance of winning a prize. Their tragic lives are inevitably touched by violence, robbing them of the small hopes to which they cling. Despair overwhelms the world that McCoy creates. Oddly enough, however, it is Robert who stands as a temporary counterweight to the story's pervasive gloom. Robert is convinced that every tomorrow carries the chance of finding the big break that will rescue him from a luckless existence -- until he finds himself in court, running out of tomorrows.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? tells a story that is simple but unforgettable. Moments of comedy -- or at least irony -- temper the bleak atmosphere that surrounds the characters, particularly when McCoy lampoons self-appointed guardians of morality. Yet at its heart, the novel makes a convincing argument that (at least for some people) life is not worth living. By restricting his focus to a small group of depression-era drifters who are confined to a building on a creaking pier, deprived of sunlight, tormented by the sound of ocean waves, walking or running in endless circles, McCoy epitomizes the pointlessness and futility of life. This sort of raw existentialism won't please readers who search for happy endings and stories of affirmation, but it serves to remind those of us who have lived fortunate lives that we should remember the troubled individuals who endure the daily grind of life in isolation and darkness, who really do believe (as does Gloria) that they would be better off dead.