Friday, 28 January 2011

They Shoot Sharks, Don't They?

There was a brief lull in the phone interview; a quiet crackle on the audio file as I played it back. Wells Tower had been talking about the writers whom he admired, people like Barry Hannah and Nicholson Baker; authors who write beautiful, fibrous sentences. Then he mentioned someone I’d not only never read, but had never heard of. Hence the pause. I assumed that the writer concerned, Charles Portis, was obscure; a cult American writer, perhaps, one of those writers’-writers; instead, reading my pause for ignorance, Tower helped me out: ‘He wrote True Grit,’ he said.

With the Coen brothers' Oscar-nomination-sprayed version currently doing the rounds, and a glossy-coated tie-in edition stacked up in Waterstone’s 3 for 2, it looks like Portis may be ripe for reappraisal – though this is only possible through Hollywood’s patronage. No matter what the quality of the prose, without the 1969 film adaptation starring everyone’s favourite race-baiting, bullet-shitting, former-Marion, John Wayne, there’s no doubt that Wells or the Coen brothers wouldn’t have found a copy in their local Barnes and Noble.

Despite writing five novels over a period of twenty-five years, Portis’s name has been completely overshadowed by the film that gave John ‘I believe in White Supremacy’ Wayne his only Oscar. I haven’t seen it. I can honestly say I’ve never watched a John Wayne movie – probably because I’m afraid I’ll be brainwashed into shooting wild animals, having suspect views towards all people who don’t shoot wild animals, and walking like I’ve just been anally penetrated by a Stars and Stripes dildo – but it must be okay: it’s kept Portis in print ever since.

True Grit belongs to a shady subset of novels; novels that owe their continued publication to their movie interpretations. It’s an odd roll call of the overlooked and the awful, a club that includes Peter Benchley’s Jaws, Robert Bloch’s Psycho, Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and James Dickey’s Deliverance. Actually, they’re mainly awful. Especially Jaws, a book so cock-clenchingly bad that the true horror lies in the leaden, barely readable prose, rather than threat of a barely believable man-eating shark.

For the most part, these books don’t really deserve the longevity they have enjoyed. They might have provided the inspiration, but read in relation to the films that they’ve spawned, they are a very poor cousin. A cousin you don’t even like. A cousin, in fact, that makes inappropriate jokes at Christmas and once hit on you when they were drunk.

Of this rather grubby genre, there is one book that doesn’t pale next to the resultant film. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy.

It takes less time to read the book than it does to watch the 1969 film version; but despite its brevity it remains a brutal, intense and provocative psychological thriller. Set during the Great Depression, the book centres on Robert and Gloria, two lost and broke would-be actors, competing in a marathon dance competition. It is an uncompromising read, in that McCoy seems determined to undermine reader expectation at all times. The novel opens with Robert’s trial for Gloria’s murder, and there is no mystery: he definitely did it. There is no conventional narrative arc, no growing appreciation of each other, no suggestion of love blossoming. Instead, as the competition becomes more gruelling and more grotesque, McCoy offers no respite to the misery.

There are some great lines in They Shoot Horses... – Gloria’s suggestion that they ‘go to the park and hate a bunch of people’ king among them – but it is the compelling oddness of the narrative which really resonates, the slow descent into madness, the claustrophobic atmosphere, the sense of it never ending. The film version is similarly bleak, but though the story follows the same shape and arc, the sheer ugliness and despair of McCoy’s book make it a quite different experience. It’s a very quick read, and is by no stretch of the imagination perfect; but it refuses to be any short of memorable. Read the book, then watch the film. Don’t read Jaws. Ever.