As a voice from the courtroom condemns him to death, Robert Syverten recounts the events that led up this sentence. The story is located, for the most part, on the Santa Monica Pier “in an enormous old building that once had been a public dance hall” (15). This is where the dance marathon takes place. This is where he kills Gloria Beatty.
The pier juts out over the Pacific Ocean: “It was built out over the ocean on pilings, and beneath our feet, beneath the floor, the ocean pounded night and day” (15). It is an emblem, an exaggeration of westward movement. California has drawn the dancers west from Texas and Arkansas and Pennsylvania, but they continue to move west, pushing even against the geographical boundaries of the land. They were drawn by a dream of Hollywood and sunshine, but the dream has become a degraded lust for “‘free food and a free bed’” and the possibility of a thousand dollar prize (13). They themselves have become degraded, have submitted to running in circles like horses on a track and to sleeping on cots in ten-minute increments (16). Robert calls it an “amusement pier” (15), but here amusement becomes perverted, entertainment becomes a spectacle of violence and inhumanity. And the ocean keeps “pounding, pounding against the pilings all the time,” (16) mercilessly, relentlessly, indifferent to what goes on above it. In this way it mirrors the monotonous repetition of the dance marathon itself.
The dancers are confined, always, to the dance hall, where they can feel the ocean but cannot see it and where only a triangle of sun breaks through the window for a few minutes each day (36). The are over the beach but not at it; they cannot enjoy the waves or see the sunset. Ironically, the beach becomes distant, unreachable—ever present as a pulse beneath them, but always unattainable, impervious to their fate. Their dreams begin and end at the ocean’s edge.
The dance marathon “‘attracts the bad element’” (85); the pier becomes tainted by violence: a fight, a stabbing, a shooting, and finally, Gloria’s death: “I shot her. The pier moved again, and the water made a sucking noise as it slipped back into the ocean. I threw pistol over the railing” (121). The pistol contaminates the water, and through McCoy’s novel, death contaminates the Santa Monica pier.