From the universe of possible reasons for a book’s going out of print, there might be collected an anthology in cultural politics, with a chapter for “unpopular culture.” One could imagine Horace McCoy there, as all his work is OP, even his famous-for-a-minute Depression-era marathon dance novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935), which returned to print, briefly, with the movie of the same name. Collectors know a real find: McCoy’s I Should Have Stayed Home, sitting in a used bookstore on a dusty shelf, positioned somewhere between Precious and Obscure Oblivion. My paperback copy’s cover proclaims it “Hard-boiled,” “Perverse,” “shockingly Brutal.”
The hard-boiled McCoy, if he was—we can’t know the real McCoy—might have appreciated his oblivion. Cynicism and despair suffuse his novels, and a sad literary fate might have satisfied his pessimism. In its darkness the hard-boiled school previewed film noir; in its cool toughness it rehearsed the next war and constructed future Cold Warriors. McCoy’s writing is also self-conscious and reflexive—modernist—showing the influences of Hemingway and even Stein. His lean, taut style serves the genre, but what’s interesting about his novels is their mix of literary forms. His work is not easy to categorize.
I Should Have Stayed Home appeared in 1938. Hitler was threatening Europe, and the U.S. was slowly moving out of the depression, from isolationism toward war. This is the novel’s time; its location, Hollywood—the Hollywood of extras. McCoy’s truly marginal characters are drawn there by the movie world’s promise of fame and fortune, not unlike Steinbeck’s Okies in Of Mice and Men, who also went West hoping for salvation.
Ambitious antihero Ralph Carston wants it all, but his conscience and idealism stand in the way. Roommate Mona is much more stalwart. The novel begins with her and their mutual friend, Dorothy, going to jail; Dorothy for shoplifting. Mona for objecting loudly, in court, to Dorothy’s sentence. Mona’s disappearance into jail sets Ralph adrift, and he descends into the abyss: “Feeling the way I did, alone and friendless, with the future very black, I didn’t want to get out on the streets and see what the sun had to show me, a cheap town filled with cheap stores and cheap people, like the town I had left, identically like any one of ten thousand other small towns in the country—not my Hollywood, not the Hollywood you read about.”
Temptation enters Ralph the extra’s life in the guise of an older woman. Mrs. Smithers is “filthy” rich with all the best movie connections. Embellishing this filthiness is how she takes her pleasure—she loves getting slapped around by gigolos. McCoy uses the novel’s filmic context by having Mrs. Smithers seduce Ralph with pornographic home movies. Ralph succumbs, not quickly, not completely, and not, finally, successfully—he doesn’t get a part but he also doesn’t ever give up. And throughout the novel, Mona, as chorus or superego, warns him against Mrs. Smithers and himself; the two extras’ dialogues construct a kind of argument about how far and how much are okay in the pursuit of success.
Relatively plotless, though replete with the genre’s dark mayhem—suicide, court scenes, jail for Ralph—the story is primarily a journey, Ralph’s making his way, or not making it, in the world. In this Pilgrim’s Progress, the hero’s struggle is not with God and the devil but with the secular world. McCoy uses Hollywood as the paradigm, the apotheosis, of capitalist society at a time when the myth of Horatio Alger was becoming a maudlin and corroded irony.
Ralph’s battle with his own corruption and loss of principle is key to McCoy’s work generally. His protagonists fight the good fight. In I Should Have Stayed Home, Mona refuses to be interviewed by fan magazines and rails against them for creating false and insatiable longings. A friend of Mona’s, Johnny Hill, who does publicity for a studio, quits his job because a German consul was able to have censored a part of a movie in which “German youngsters [are] drilled as soldiers.”
Then, in the reflexive mode, Johnny announces to Mona and Ralph that he’s going to write a novel about Hollywood’s extras— ”the true story of this town concerns people like you—a girl like you and a boy like him. Maybe I’ll put you two in a book . . . Understand I don’t think I’ve got any special talent for novel writing.” Ralph-in-Hollywood is McCoy’s meditation on desire and failure. Through failure may now be the unspeakable of our society, in the midst of the Depression it was an existential fact of life. McCoy’s Hollywood is the nightmare machine that produces phonies, monsters and wasted youth, sadness and sadism. He sees failure embedded within the system; there will always be people who don’t make it.
McCoy’s version of cultural politics is, like the country he’s from, contradictory. There’s some “conventional” racism, homophobia and misogyny side by side with sympathy for the underdog and hope for a nationwide new deal. Contemporary “conventional” attitudes are as questionable but more difficult to isolate from the narratives—ideologies—that we live. It seems easier to spot offensive or questionable ideas in work from earlier periods, in part because language and style change. Concepts such as “underdog” and “phony” may seem dated in today’s parlance and in our nation, as presidents wrap themselves in symbols and commit highly unsymbolic HUD and S&L frauds. And get away with it. It’s banal now even to say that corruption is endemic when many are positioned as permanent underdogs, the underclass.
Reading the out-of-print McCoy returns one to the not-sodistant past and to another consciousness. McCoy’s sometimes uncomfortable speeches, prejudices and “old-fashioned” language bespeak the U.S.’s disturbed history, its citizens’ noble and ignoble values. His writing style itself speaks a very American language, presaging the Beats; long flowing sentences and a moody lyricism alternate with terse, plain speech. Like other American writers from the Transcendentalists on, McCoy eulogizes a disappearing America, its hometowns and daily life transformed by powerful economic and social forces. Hard-boiled despair is personal, political and unpopular. But given our economy, McCoy’s lessons on living with failure might come in handy.