Reviewed by Chris F. Holm
“Noir works, whether films, novels, or short stories, are existential, pessimistic tales about people, including (or especially) protagonists, who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry. … The likelihood of a happy ending in a noir story is remote, even if the protagonist’s own view of a satisfactory resolution is the criterion for defining happy. No, it will end badly, because the characters are inherently corrupt and that is the fate that inevitably awaits them.”
So says Otto Penzler in his foreword to The Best American Noir of the Century, and for what it’s worth, it’s as good a definition of noir as any. If that sounds like I’m damning his definition with faint praise, well, that’s because I am. Maybe, if I’d been assigned to review Oates’ “Faithless,” Crumley’s “Hot Springs,” or Block’s “Like a Bone in the Throat,” Mr. Penzler’s definition would sit easier with me. But I wasn’t. I was assigned MacKinlay Kantor’s “Gun Crazy.” And on the face of it, “Gun Crazy” puts the lie to all that nonsense about pessimism, corruption, and bad ends.
“Gun Crazy” is a strange little tale, obliquely following the rise and eventual fall of famed bank robber Nice Nelly from the point-of-view of a childhood friend. We first meet Nelly (born Nelson Tare) at the age of five or six – a gaunt, wild-eyed child prone to baby talk and even then obsessed with guns. By the time Nelson hits his teens his obsession’s blossomed, and he’s known the neighborhood over as a crack shot – though one the narrator (and, importantly, a young man who, decades later, becomes sheriff) discovers is uninterested in shooting animals for sport.
In high school, Nelly draws a loaded gun on his teacher and earns himself a thrashing, and not long after that, he turns to petty theft. And just a few years after that, he winds up making headlines the nation over when he employs his talents with a gun toward more lofty goals – like knocking over banks.
Nice Nelly terrorizes the middle states for years before (ahem – spoilers approaching) finally being brought to justice – and therein lies the rub. See, as it turns out, the gun-crazed antagonist of the story has an aversion to killing that proves his undoing, and allows the good guys to bring him in without incident. Which seems to fly in the face of Penzler’s assertion that noir is a genre of morally corrupt characters coming to bad ends.
So is Penzler wrong? If only it were that simple. “Gun Crazy” was first published in 1940, though that date is misleading in that the story itself spans the three preceding decades, offering a glimpse of a Middle America not yet comfortable with its own modernity, one in which outlaws and sharpshooters are feared and rooted for in equal measure, and in which gunplay is still more a reverent national birthright than the violent scourge of inner cities. And though Nelly is the antagonist of the tale, you get the sense the narrator (an otherwise fine, upstanding individual who plays a role in Nelly’s apprehension) is kind of rooting for the guy. What’s fascinating is that Kantor seems to present Nelly’s inability to kill not as a triumph of conscience, but a failure of character – and that is about as nihilistic as it comes.
Chris Holm is the award winning author of the short story collection 8 Pounds.