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Book Review: “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” by Horace McCoy

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Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (Midnight Classics)

The second of Horace McCoy’s noir classics, republished in April by Open Road Media in a nicely formatted eBook with perhaps the most extensive biography of McCoy available. Published in 1948 at the start of what scholars consider the beginning of the Noir/Paperback era in crime fiction (and the end of the hardboiled era of authors like Dashiell Hammett, Chandler and the pulp magazines and their authors) , Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye leans towards the hardboiled genre, that had just past, but enters the noir era. The book is full of lively dialogue and tough guys and femme fatales that were also “tough gals”, and though it comes nowhere close to Raymond Chandlers snappy, cynical wit, it stacks up nicely with most of the hardboiled writing of the era.

McCoy, from Tennessee, served in the first world war. After the war he relocated to Texas where he spent the years between 1919 and 1930 as a sports editor for the Dallas Journal . It was while he was in Texas that he got bitten by the acting bug which led him to acting in local theater that eventually saw him move to California in an attempt, at first to become a movie star. This experience was put to good use in his novels and short stories which often depicted central characters that were either involved, usually with little success, in the budding film industry. In the late ‘20s he started his writing career by selling short stories to various pulp mystery magazines such as Amazing Stories, Black Mask and Dime Detective. He went on to publish his first novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in 1935. Between ‘35 and 1961 (Corruption City was published posthumously in 1961) he published 5 more novels. He spent most of his efforts working as a script writer after the success of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (which we reviewed last week)  from 1935 until his death in 1955.  Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, is among his best efforts and was turned in to a film starring James Cagney as the protagonist, Ralph Cotter. the film, and the book were widely banned because it was "a sordid, sadistic presentation of brutality and an extreme presentation of crime with explicit steps in commission." I guess they didn’t want little Johnny learning step by step criminal schemes.

“Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” 1950, starring James Cagney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The movie received mixed reviews by the American critics, and was often compared unfavorably to White Heat which features Cagney in a similar role. Nevertheless, the film had a great influence on the French filmmakers who loved pulp fiction and gave the genre the name, film noir, and can be seen, for example, in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Made in U.S.A, in which one character is reading this novel in its French translation, Adieu la vie, adieu l’amour. Indeed, the influence led McCoy and other writers such as David Goodis and James M. Cain ,works to be relabeled ‘noir’ differentiating them from the classic ‘hardboiled’ detective novels of Hammett, Chandler and others.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is the story of Ralph Cotter, an unquestionably amoral man who sees himself as intellectually superior because of his Ivy League education and his having been born into an upper class family, although his pedigree is questionable and he avoids any proof when challenged by his minions, one exchange;  “Does it matter?” (where he went to college) “You’re not ashamed of it , are you?” “I think the college might be. I’m sure my career doesn’t reflect too much credit on the school. It does prove one thing, though it proves that I came into crime through choice not through environment. I didn’t grow up in the slums with a drunk for a father and a whore for a mother and come into it because it mistreated me and warped my soul. Every criminal I know – who’s engaged in violent crime – is a two-bit coward who blames society. I need no apologist or crusader to finally hold my lifeless body up to the world and shout for them to come observe what they have wrought.” It’s easy to take this book as nothing more than a great ‘genre story’ but McCoy’s use of the then topical subject of “nature verses nurture” is important to the times he lived as many of the “folk lore” criminals of the day such as John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson  were raised in ‘broken homes’ and the apologists of the day explained their antisocial behavior on the hard times of the day.

The book opens with Ralph, along with a fellow inmate, Toko, breaking out of prison on a chain gang. They are aided by Holiday, the buxom gun moll cum femme fatale of the piece. Once successful, Ralph immediately starts pulling robberies in the unnamed town where he is hiding out. On his first job, he ends up being double crossed and when confronted by the police who at first seem about to shoot him, Holiday and Jinx, who had aided in the escape, but take their money instead and tell them to take the first bus to Phoenix.

Horace McCoy

Ralph comes up with a scheme to turn the tables on the crooked cops by recording them on a phonograph talking about a bigger heist and presumably aiding the gang in the crime. He uses this to blackmail the high ranking Inspector Webber and along the way meets and employs the lawyer, Mandon to help him setup his blackmail scheme. As he carries on a tumultuous relationship with Holiday, and plans bigger and bigger capers, Ralph (having taken on the alias of Paul Murphy) is soon revealed as not only wanting to gain riches but to climb socially as well. While trying to locate a con artists that can help him pull off his blackmail scheme he meets Margret, who he sees as a step up the social ladder. But after being caught In flagrante delicto with Margret and coming up with the excuse they had just been married, Ralph figures he has bitten off more than he can chew and consequently turns down $35,000 in bribe money to sign an annulment.

As Ralph, showing disdain for his loosely formed criminal gang,  now with the aid of the crooked police and the shyster Mandon, plans to hold up, and kill, the bag men for a local mafia don, he details a complex and involved strategy. When the crime goes off without a hitch, he is at his most egotistic in the false belief that his superior intellect and planning were the reason for their success. He lords it over Holiday, Jinx and even Mandon, and instead of sowing respect earns more and more resentment from his compatriots.

But Margret and her wealthy  industrial giant of a father has a new found respect for Ralph because he turned down the bribe. He offers Ralph a million dollars to marry Margret, who is infatuated with Ralph. Ralph has no desire to be married, but a million dollars and the respectability the offer could bring him tempts him. But he soon learns that he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is and that old barb about a woman scorned combined with karma can be a bitch.

McCoy drew the story in a very Hammett like way. The unnamed town, the prevalence of crooked small town politicians and superficial upper crust characters are all devices that Hammett used to great effect in his Continental Op stories. But McCoy adds to that many elements that would become in the coming decade of the ‘50s typical of the ‘noir’ genre. Instead of the lone good guy against the array of bad guys – crooked cops and crookeder crooks – and the damsel in distress femme fatale, McCoy introduces the tough gal in Holiday and nary a character is admirable. Everybody has their own motivations and most of those are deplorable and the characters are thus, beyond redemption. Further, though Ralph on occasion displays competence, his ego wants to see his successes as brilliance on his part when what it is is mostly luck.

McCoy also rises above the typical hardboiled/noir fare by introducing many topical subjects of the day; the deplorable conditions in prisons, “Not much of the morning could get into the place where I was, and the portions that did were always pretty well mauled and no wonder: they had to fight their way in through a single window at the same time a solid shaft of stink was going out. This was a prison barracks where seventy-two unwashed men slept chained to their bunks, and when the individual odors of seventy-two unwashed men finally gather into one pillar of stink you have got a pillar of stink the like of which you cannot conceive; majestic, nonpareil, transcendental, K.” (I’m not sure whether the ‘K’ is a misprint or an obscure term.). He also alludes to male rape in prisons and homosexuals who Ralph comes to accept as fellow rebels, he thinks to himself at one point “ We all had a little twilight in our souls; in every man there are homosexual tendencies, this is immutable, there is no variant, the only variant is the depth of the latency….They were rebels too, rebels introverted; I was a rebel extroverted. theirs was the force that did not kill, mine was the force that did kill.”  . There is also the subject of “nature verses nurture” which was very much in discussion at the time the book was written. Further, he reveals much about Ralph and uses a plot device that would become stock in noir fiction through Ralph’s inner dialogs which are almost as numerable as the tough guy banter between the characters. This also portrays Ralphs rising mania to not only out wit the system but to rise above the typical slow witted crooks he is forced to employ in his schemes.

Altogether, not only a tour de force of hardboiled noir fiction, but a literary triumph of genre fiction from one of the grandfathers of the style and a wonderful edition now available in a nicely formatted eBook with an extended biography of the author.

Article first published as Book Review: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy on Blogcritics.

 

 

The Dirty Lowdown

Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved

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Book Review: “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” by Horace McCoy

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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?: A Novel (Serpent’s Tail Classics)

Horace McCoy’s, along with James M. Cain and a few other authors of the ‘20s, ‘30s & ‘40s, was labeled early on as a hardboiled authors, in the same vein as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and others. But, in retrospect, most of his novels didn’t fit the classic description of hardboiled. First, they weren’t detectives. Secondly, the main protagonists were not mainly dealing with solving a mystery and often the main characters were flawed, and if not totally beyond redemption, at least of questionable character. Of course, now these writers are most identified with the ‘Noir’ genre; the ‘roman noir’ or “dark books’ as they would finally be labeled after many of them were made into film noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Reissued in April by Open Road Media, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is McCoy’s most well known novel, perhaps because of the Academy Award Nominated film (it won one Oscar for Gig Young as supporting actor, and was nominated in eight other categories, including best director- Sydney Pollack and best actress – Jane Fonda) starring Michael Sarrazin and Jane Fonda.

The story opens up with the narrator and protagonist confessing to murder, thus quickly shedding any aspirations to a mystery. He confesses that he "killed her," and that he doesn’t "have a leg to stand on." alluding to the title of the book. In his youth, he saw the favorite family horse break its leg, after which it was shot and put out of its misery, also leading to the conclusion as well as the title.

The main characters are Robert Syverten, who came to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a great director, and Gloria Beatty who ran away to Dallas from a farm in West Texas where her uncle always made passes at her. In Dallas, she tried to commit suicide, then ran away to Hollywood with dreams of being in movies, but is finding only rejection. The pair meet on the morning when they have both failed to get parts as extras.

The setting for the novel is in the shabby La Monica Ballroom, perched over the Pacific Ocean on the Santa Monica Pier, near Los Angeles. Gloria talks Robert into participating entering a marathon dance contest believing the contest may be a way to get noticed by studio producers or movie stars. The novel was written in 1935, at the height of the dance marathon craze. Dance endurance contests attracted people to compete to achieve a type of cheap celebrity or monetary prizes. McCoy, whose life story very much  resembled Roberts, had briefly worked as a bouncer at contest just like this in California.

Official movie trailer, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” directed by Sydney Pollack

The book also differs from the of hardboiled books of the era in that the plot is nonlinear, being told back to front as well as flash back scenes that reveal the characters back story and histories. From the start we know that Robert killed Gloria and the plot reveals why. Further, the flash back scenes to Robert witnessing the shooting of the families pet horse and how that affected him, his hopes and dreams of becoming a great film director, and the failure he feels in just hanging on and excepting bit parts, to Gloria’s life with the lecherous uncle, her despair in trying to make it as a single girl at the height of the depression and why she tried to kill herself in Dallas before coming to Hollywood to become a movie star. All of this reveals why Gloria, from the start has a fatal outlook for her future, and maybe everyone’s future. From the start, Gloria tells Robert that she wishes she were dead, a point she repeats in most of their conversations. She also feels she has had to resort to unsavory acts, one of which will come out later in the dance contest, just to survive. One hundred and forty four couples start the contest. Robert and Gloria, like most of the contestants, are young, jobless, and drawn as much by the free food as by the $1,000 prize money (raised to the ‘princely sum of $1,500 in the movie).

The book was also printed in a dramatic fashion in that the story begins with Robert’s sentencing for murder. He confesses that he "killed her," and that he doesn’t "have a leg to stand on." He is advised to beg for mercy from the Court. The story of his relationship with the  Gloria  is then intercut after every few chapters with short excerpts from the judge’s sentencing. The excerpts of the judge’s words are written in larger and larger type until the last page of the book concludes with the words written in small print: "And may God have mercy on your soul".

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? has long been considered, along with The Grapes of Wrath as one of the most convincing—and heartbreaking—fictional portraits of America during the Great Depression. It is a stunning portrait of poverty and powerlessness during the Great Depression, as Robert and Gloria, along with the supporting cast of characters risk everything I the grueling dance marathon, to ever more desperately keep their dreams alive, and as those dreams die in the face of the times, just survive. As the dance goes on, into the second and third week, the crowds grow larger and the media come out, as hoped for by the contestants, to cover and sensationalize the contest. Also, the rich and the Hollywood stars that have made it, also come out to watch, almost like people stopping to look at an auto accident. As the contest grinds on, couples break down physically and drop out, and some plot desperately to gain an advantage. The sponsors also stoop to new lows in the hopes of profiting from the desperate dancers. There are rumors of the contest being fixed half way through, and then they weather an attempt to shut down the contest by the local morals society, and Gloria, angry, bitter and outspoken in her desperation, angry, curses the women as spoiled, interfering hypocrites..

I believe that what makes the novel a classic isn’t just it depiction of life in The Great Depression, but its larger parody of life in general, in every generation. It reveals how easy it is for dreams to crumble, and also how our egos can work against us by giving us goals that are beyond our capability to achieve. Gloria dreams and searches for redemption by becoming a Hollywood starlet, when in reality she is not that attractive.  this universal theme is what makes the novel a classic and not just a snap shot of a desperate time in history.

It’s wonderful to see the book republished by Open Road, who released this book in eBook at the same time they republish McCoy’s other masterpiece of classic noir, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, which I will also be reviewing. Both eBooks feature an extended biography of Horace McCoy and are nicely formatted.

 

Article first published as Book Review: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy on Blogcritics.

 

The Dirty Lowdown

Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved

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Filed under Crime Reports-Book Reviews, Reviewing The Classics