"'What's the matter with Gloria?' James asked me one day as we came back to the floor from the sleeping quarters.
'Nothing. What do you mean?' I asked. But I knew what he meant. Gloria had been singing the blues again."
The Europeans don't have an exclusive grip on the dark, moody and existentialist with this Serpent's Tail Classic showing that American authors were quite adept at putting the dark into a black tale of despair and nihilism.
The story evolves around one of the dance competitions that ran across America in the 1930s giving those with stamina the chance to dance marathon competitions for money. Not only was it a case of last man standing but the tension of numerous couples being cooped up in an end of the pier type show for days on end also led to the chance that the tension would boil over and end the dancing through fights or tantrums.
You know how this story is going to end because it starts with Robert Syverten standing in the dock admitting that he killed her and that he doesn't really have a defence.
The story then moves to what led Robert, a young man dreaming of making it in the movies, from shooting Gloria a bit of a flakey girl also dreaming of making it as an actress. They meet as extras and she tells Robert of a dance contest that is not just attractive because of the monety but because it might put them under the spotlight for agents and directors.
more than a hundred couples start and the evenings are interrupted by one man being run-off as its revealed he is a murder suspect. As the hours drag on the couples drop out and the short breaks prove to be insufficient to patch up sore feet and tired heads.
An old woman comes and watches Robert and she seems to sense the impending doom as the young man spends more time with Gloria who is bitter and has a darkness about her. Her mixed approach to using sex as a way of furthering her own career and of her hatred for those using morality as a weapon drive a rift between Robert and his partner as he fails to keep up with her anger.
The contest enters the third week and both of them are at the point of exhaustion and a stray bullet fired in a scuffle kills the old woman who had been such a loyal supporter. The contest ends and its in the open air by the sea that a fatalistic Gloria asks Robert to shoot her which provokes the young man to do what she asks. When quizzed by a policeman why he replies with the killer line "They shoot horses, don't they?".
The book has a pace like a slow whirlpool pulling the dances and Robert and Gloria ever closer to breaking point. As the weeks go by and the point of being in the dance slips away and the potential rewards more elusive the need to compete seems to take over. Once that is removed what does life have to offer? The depression is in full swing and McCoy pulls no punches about the bleakness of life. What really is there worth living for if you can't make your dreams come true? Great stuff.