“A gun’s a bad thing to have handy.”
Author Dorothy Hughes (1904-1993) is arguably best known for her noir novel In a Lonely Place (1947) which became the basis of a Humphrey Bogart film. Ride the Pink Horse (1946) is another noir novel which was also made into a film–although one that’s fallen off the radar. Ride the Pink Horse is a strange title, but its meaning becomes apparent as the story plays out. It’s both a literal reference to a horse on a merry-go-round, and a figurative reference to the fantasy of a better life, “playing it big, fine clothes, fine car, fine hotels, society blondes.” It’s the sort of life envied by a man who’s been born in poverty and is accustomed to having doors slammed in his face, as he watches, with simmering resentment, a lesser man, a “weasel” of a man, enjoying the best comforts of life just because he has money and social position.
The novel’s protagonist is a man called Sailor. Travelling from Chicago, he arrives in a “hick town” in New Mexico with some unfinished business to settle with his former employer, a sleazy politician with a “weasel face” who is known as the Sen.
He came in on the five o’clock bus. He was well to the back and he didn’t hurry. He remained seated there, his eyes alone moving while the other passengers churned front. His eyes moving and without seeming to move, through the windows on the right where he was seated, across the aisle through the left-hand windows. He saw no one he knew, no one who even looked as if he came from the city.
Sailor arrives just as the 3-day long local Fiesta begins, and the first problem he encounters is that all the hotels are booked. Sailor begins his hunt for a room, lugging his suitcase along in the dust and the heat. At each hotel, he’s told by a desk clerk that there are no rooms available, and initially he takes the rejection personally–as if his money isn’t good enough, and at one point he even begins to pull out a wad of cash to prove he can pay. His fruitless search takes him lower and lower on the totem pole until he’s finally turned away by a clerk in a dingy hotel located next to a pool hall.
Sailor is in town to recover an unpaid debt. The Sen was supposed to pay Sailor, his “confidential secretary,” $1500 for his role in the cover-up of the murder of the Sen’s wealthy wife. The murder was set up to look like a robbery that went wrong, and Sailor got a $500 downpayment. After his wife’s death, Sen cashed in a $50,000 life insurance policy and split town. Now the Sen is here in New Mexico, hanging out in the town’s best hotel and panting after svelte silver blonde Iris Towers–“an angel who strayed into hell” who is so important to the Sen that “he’d crawl over the body of a dead woman to get to her.” Sailor followed the Sen to collect his thousand bucks, but now he thinks $5,000 is a fair sum to keep his mouth shut. $5,000 will be the seed money to start a better life–the sort of life that the Sen has.
He’d set up a little safe business of his own in Mexico, making book or peddling liquor, quick and easy money, big money. He’d get himself a silver blonde with clean eyes. Marry her. Maybe she’d have dough too, money met money and bred money. All he wanted was his just pay and he’d be over the border.
Without a hotel room and a place to wash, Sailor is acutely aware of his dusty, sweaty and rumpled appearance. It’s been a long time since Sailor has felt this small, and as he shuffles around town trying to find a room, he strikes up a relationship with a “fat and shapeless and dirty” man dubbed “Pancho Villa” by Sailor. Pancho Villa isn’t the man’s real name, of course, but this is an indication of Sailor’s attitude towards Mexicans. To Sailor, a portly dark-skinned man instantly becomes Pancho Villa, and “Pancho” is good-natured enough not to take offense. He’s the owner of a small, cheesy merry-go-round named Tio Vivo, and soon Pancho and Sailor become drinking buddies. Sailor discovers that the only people who show him any kindness are the Mexicans and the Indians, and yet while Sailor acknowledges this, he’s also very uncomfortable with the idea that he’s been relegated, by default, to this portion of the population.
Not long after arriving in town, Sailor spots a Chicago cop named Mac, and at this point it’s unclear if Mac is there for Sailor or for the Sen. A game of cat-and-mouse begins between the three men as they alternately court and avoid the inevitable showdown.
Sailor is not a particularly appealing protagonist. He arrives in town full of attitude towards the Mexican and Indian residents. His thoughts are full of racial commentary, and this makes for uncomfortable reading at times. As the novel wears on, however, Sailor’s actions never quite match his racist thoughts, so ultimately the racist part of Sailor seems to be a veneer more than anything else–a way of trying to establishing distance from the Mexicans and Indians he professes to disdain, and a way of trying to plant himself into the more affluent echelons of white society.
In Ride the Pink Horse Dorothy Hughes examines the class divisions in American society. The Senator is at the top of the heap, and Sailor, his one-time minion, given the taste of the good life, now wants to have what the Sen has. He envies him his room, his clothes and his woman. Frequently Sailor finds himself cast out of the better things in life by circumstance. He can’t for example get a room, and if he can’t get a room, he can’t take a shower. When Sailor tries to make his move, Mac, his doppelgänger, is lurking in the background, trying to offer Sailor choices that he doesn’t want.
On the down side, Ride the Pink Horse is not a page turner. While the plot scenario implies tension, it’s largely absent from the novel. Instead there’s a repetitiveness, a circular motion to the action that implies both an inevitability and an inescapability, and of course a circular motion that mirrors the cheap thrill of the merry-go-round.
He stood there, helpless anger knotting his nerves. Monotonously cursing the Sen, the dirty, double-crossing, lying whoring Senator Willis Douglass. It was the Sen’s fault he was in this god-forsaken town and no place to rest his feet. He hadn’t wanted to come here. He’d wanted it less and less as the bus traveled farther across the wasteland; miles of nothing, just land, empty land. Land that didn’t get anywhere except into more land, and always against the sky the unmoving barrier of mountains. It was like moving into a trap, a trap you couldn’t ever get out of. Because no matter how far you traveled, you’d always be stopped by the rigid mountains.