Book review: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?


In the grand scheme of things, life is short. I get that. And because life is short, we shouldn’t have to plan for things down the road or regret doing the stupid things we do, right? “You only live once,” a popular Internet même likes to say about this idea.

And yet in the midst of our economic struggles today, this same idea of life being too short echoes once again. Yes, this is not a new concept. In fact, life being too short meant something to another time called the “Great Depression” in the United States, but not necessarily in the same fashion as we do today.

Horace McCoy’s short novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? takes place in the mid-thirties in sunny Santa Monica, California. Right off the bat, readers understand that the main character is currently in a trial for murder (in fact, every chapter begins with the next part of his final sentence), so technically the ending is already spoiled. What readers don’t understand right away is why the main character (who we find out much later is a man named Robert Syverten) kills the heroine Gloria Beatty.

Robert Syverten and Gloria were not particularly friends, but somehow decided to join together as partners in a marathon dance. Marathon dances, which were quite the rage apparently in the twenties and thirties, were events held where couples move around without stopping for days on end, with only one ten-minute break every two hours. The last couple to continue dancing gets a $1000 prize, the equivalent of about half a million today. One of the veteran couples in the story participated in one such dance that lasted over 1253 hours, roughly 52 days without sleep or going anywhere else but the dance hall. Why would people subject themselves to such long spans of doing the same thing day in and day out? Well, when you’re jobless and feeling like you have to find a quick break to make tons of cash, why not? “You only live once,” right?

Interestingly enough, repetition is one of the most common themes in this story. The most obvious form of repetition is the derby, a method that this dance hall uses to eliminate couples faster. Couples compete by dancing around in a large track around the dance floor all day. The couple with the least amount of laps that day is taken out of the competition. Some people may wonder why the story carries on so quickly; I think that most of the days spent at the marathon dance were pretty much the same thing anyway, so I’m actually glad the story wasn’t any longer.

Also, Rocky the master of ceremonies gets on my nerves. I swear, every time he said “ladies and gentlemen” I wanted to jump into the story and knock his teeth out! Next time around, I should count every time Rocky says those words, because that was ridiculously annoying!

In the end, we come to realize that even in the idea of folks believing life is too short and partying it up shouting “YOLO,” there is some sort of repetition that people face in life (as boring as that sounds). And despite young folks who believe that they must do the wild and crazy things now because life is short, for the young adults in this novel (and that time period) come to prove that life is just not short enough. The only way to break the cycle around the proverbial derby as set in the dance marathon is through death.

So next time I see one of those “you only live once” campaigns, I will remember that the repetition of such a case is already too much. If life is short for some people, it’s obviously not short enough, and I will be shouting a different YOLO: “You obviously lack originality!”

Oh, and if you’re still wondering why Robert Syverten killed Gloria Beatty, well, they shoot horses, don’t they?


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