Horace McCoy: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) or The Hunger Games of the Great Depression?

The whole of last week I was looking for something to read that would grab me. I’ve read a few very good but very similar novels lately and was longing for something different. When I read Guy’s review of McCoy’s novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? I thought, that’s it, that’s what I want to read. Thanks to the kindle I could start right away. I’ve watched the movie when I was a teenager and although I was very impressed, I never read the book. Now that I have, I wonder why I didn’t read it any earlier. It’s great. It reminded me of another depression era book which has also been made into a movie, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is as powerful as I was expecting it to be. It’s written in the form of a testimony. A man is accused of murder. He doesn’t deny it but he wouldn’t exactly call it murder. He thinks he did the person he shot a favour. The court asks him to justify what he did and that’s why he tells his story.

Why he shot someone and why he thinks it was a favour is told in flash backs. Robert and Gloria are both luckless actors who can’t make it in Hollywood. Not even as extras, no matter how hard they try. One from Texas, the other from Arkansas, they both were hoping that Hollywood would make their dreams come true. They are very poor and hardly have enough money to buy food. When Gloria tells Robert about a dance marathon, he is first reluctant but then joins her and they sign up. These marathons were really held in those times. It’s hard to imagine nowadays but people signed up to dance for 900 and more hours straight. They were allowed to rest for fifteen minutes after one and half hours but that was all the rest they got. After a while they didn’t really dance but they had to keep moving all the time. The marathon was over when only one last couple was left.

Many  couples sign up together with Robert and Gloria, 50% already don’t make it through week one. Because the public is easily bored the organizers have to spice up things a bit and come up with additional ideas, like the derbies. Every evening the couples have to speed around the dance floor. The last couple is disqualified.

The drama during the marathon is intense. Fights break out, people collapse, the exhaustion is hard to picture, still many go on dancing after 800 hours.

There is a lot to like in this novel. The dialogue is spot on and highly effective. It captures the different colorful characters very well. What really impressed me are the two main characters Robert and Gloria. Especially Gloria. Robert and Gloria are such opposites despite the fact that they are in a very similar situation when they meet. Their mental state is so different. While Robert is hopeful, Gloria is one of the darkest characters one could imagine.

“Sometimes I’m sorry I ever met you, ” I said. “I don’t like to say a thing like that, but it’s the truth. Before I met you I didn’t know what it was to be around gloomy people.”

We crowded behind the starting lines with the other couples.

“I’m tired of living and I’m afraid of dying.” Gloria said.

Gloria is one of those people who are too far gone. I’ve met people like that in my life. You just knew, they had passed the point of no return, they were too self-destructive, no influence was going to save them. And, as one character says to Robert in the novel, it is dangerous to be in their company. They are like a maelstrom, the moment you’re in it they swallow you and drag you down.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is an unflinching account of how far people are driven by poverty. And how others are willing to exploit this poverty for fun and entertainment. Only one couple can win the 1000$, the others hardly get anything. But nobody is really interested in the winners, people want to see the other couples fail. The more spectacular the failure, the better.

While it wasn’t surprising that this reminded me of another depression era book I was in no way expecting to find anything that would remind me of The Hunger Games. The writing cannot be compared, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They is excellent but there are still a lot of striking similarities that made me think. I was wondering whether Suzanne Collins was consciously using it or if it was just a coincidence. After finishing the book I googled the titles together and saw that I’m not the first to spot the similarities. Amy from My Friend Amy has also written about it as you can see here and so have others.

In both books, poor people are exploited for fun. While the role of the respective government is different, the outcome is similar. In The Hunger Games the people are forced to participate, while they sign up in McCoys novel. In both instances to see others fail, watch them struggle, makes the success of the show. In both books couples or people who are liked will get sponsors who will pay for things that will help them. Food and medicine in The Hunger Games, clothes in McCoy’s books.  In both novels food plays a prominent role. In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? they are fed during the breaks and eat more than usual. In The Hunger Games the dinners and lunches in the Capitol are described in great detail. Ultimately hunge, is a key theme in both books. In both books there are fake marriages/romances. Couples agree to get married or to pretend to be in love in order to make the games more interesting. And in both books the show doesn’t end as expected, in both something goes wrong. Last but not least, killing and murder is another key theme in both novels.

What is completely different is the psychological dimension. The Hunger Games isn’t very psychological but They Shoot Horses, Dont They? is. The charcaters, even the secondary ones, are captivating and feel realistic.

It would be interesting to analyze these books in more depth and to compare some of the depression era books with the wave of dystopian novels we have and what it means in terms of the perception of economic crisis.

Have you read this or other books from the Depression era? What do you know about the similarities with The Hunger Games. Is it a pure coincidence?

I wasn’t aware but I’ve downloaded an Open Road Media title. They have just released this and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye as you can see here.

John O’Hara: Appointment in Samarra (1933) The Social and Psychological Downfall of an Alcoholic

Appointment in Samarra is a fast-paced, blackly comic depiction of the rapid decline and fall of Julian English. English is part of the social elite of his 1930s American hometown but from the moment he impetuously throws a cocktail in the face of one of his powerful business associates his life begins to spiral out of control – taking his loving but troubled marriage with it.
“For all its excellence as a social panorama and a sketch of a marriage, it is as a picture of a man destroyed by drink and pride that Appointment in Samarra lives frighteningly in the mind” John Updike

Isn’t it wonderful when you read a book at the exact right time? I started Appointment in Samarra on Christmas Eve, not knowing that the novel started on Christmas Eve or rather, during the early morning hours of Christmas and tells a story, with a few flashbacks, that lasts exactly three days. Three days in which a man starts his descent. The man is Julian English and the reason for his downfall seems to be his throwing a glass of drink, including ice cubes, into the face of a much despised but universally feared man. Of course this is not the real reason for Julian’s fall into the social and psychological abyss, it is just the tipping point, the one crucial moment that pushes him over the edge. The real reason is his heavy drinking and, due to this, the end of his marriage to Caroline, a woman he still loves and desires as much as when he met her. On an even deeper level, there is also something happening that the French writer Cocteau termed “La machine infernale”. And exactly this is what the title alludes to. Appointment in Samarra refers to a short piece taken from Somerset Maugham titled Death speaks that opens the novel. Death speaks alludes to the inevitability of destiny. Once the machine is set in motion, there is no stopping it. Once your fate has been decided you cannot change it.

Apart from following Julian’s descent Appointment in Samarra offers an incredibly interesting analysis of a highly ritualized society during the Great Depression and Prohibition era. Julian and Caroline English are part of the high-society of the small town, Gibbsville. They follow the rules of club life and parties very closely until Julian throws his drink into Harry’s face. From this moment on, he is an outcast. But what is so terrible in what he did? It seems to lay bare the undercurrent of hate and contempt beyond this façade of politeness and good manners. And what’s worst, he doesn’t really give a damn. Breaching the rules of society sets something free in Julian as well. He doesn’t keep up a front anymore. He had problems with alcohol before but now they get unbridled. He drinks and drinks and drinks, hurts people’s feelings and still doesn’t care until he cannot stop anymore.

Appointment in Samarra was criticized when it came out as it is a very outspoken novel. Sexuality is a central theme and even women show interest in it. At the same time it illustrates what society expects from its members, especially its female members. Virginity is an important topic and the fact whether or not a girl is a virgin is of greatest importance. There are two flashback parts in the novel. One shows Caroline just before she gets married to Julian and is an interesting and careful analysis of women’s role in this society. The second flashback focuses on Julian’s childhood and his complicated relationship with his father a very incapable surgeon. It also mentions Julian’s grandfather who committed suicide and was, as Julian’s father states, a liar like Julian himself.

One of the most impressive features of this book is how O’Hara handles point of view. It is very diverse and original but not experimental. The second thing that struck me is his use of dialogue. Some of the dialogues are among the best I have ever read. These people sound like real people, also the drunken Julian is incredibly well rendered.

Apparently O’Hara has in parts told his own story. He just got divorced, pretty much for the same reasons as Julian. He drank too much. However some of the traits are inverted. O’Hara was an Irish Catholic but in the book Harry, the guy he throws the drink at, is an Irish Catholic. O’Hara’s own father was a doctor and the relationship must have been a conflicting one.

Appointment in Samarra is also a very American novel, one of the most American novels I have ever read and this is not only based on the fact that the Depression and Prohibition are mentioned but in how prominent the role of cars is in this novel. Cadillacs to be precise. Apart from being status symbols, they are treated like rooms. You drive in them, talk in them, quarrel and make love in them. You sit in your car to drink or smoke or just think. And you can end your life in a car as well.

According to John Updike who wrote the foreword to my edition, this seems to have been O’Hara’s first and most accomplished novel. Apparently he wrote some 400 short stories.

I always wanted to read the novel since I saw it mentioned by one of the soldiers in the movie Redacted (which I never finished watching btw.  There are a lot of allusions to the Great War, which would probably also be worth analyzing) and lately saw O’Hara mentioned on Danielle’s blog.

This is definitely a book to reread. I don’t really know if I liked it but I found it fascinating and enjoyed the style a great deal. This is like reading F. Scott Fitzgerald without the varnish. A novel with the feel of a roman noir and the bleakest of endings.