Gunsmoke on Acid: Barry Hannah’s Deconstruction of the American Western in Never Die

by Matthew McEver

In American culture, we have always given the era of frontier expansion special treatment. The Literature of the American West has typically served the causes of Manifest Destiny and Social Darwinism and functioned as the American creation myth. Such a mythology seems so ripe for lampoon, yet parodies of the Western are so few. But if you’re familiar with Barry Hannah’s work, you know that false history is an ever-constant theme in his fiction. Not surprisingly, Hannah pulls it off.

Hannah’s short novel, Never Die (1992), is a parody of the American Western where, echoing High Plains Drifter,  a gunfighter named Fernando intends to burn down the corrupt township of Nitburg, Texas–a settlement controlled by a judge who founded and named the town after himself. Judge Nitburg relies on his town regulator, a dwarf named Smoot, and hires a ruthless killer named Luther Nix to quell Fernando’s mutinous aspirations. Hannah mocks America’s sentimentalizing of the frontier by refusing to exalt the characters, through violence that is cartoonish but never redemptive, and by incorporating elements of progress and modernity such as the automobile and the airplane. The New York Times Book Review described the novel as “the Marx Brothers doing a combination western parody and slasher film.” Hannah’s adeptness at blending violence and comic absurdity is at a premium here, and the dark humor in this short novel is achieved largely through his negating our expectations of a Western.

In the novel’s opening, via a rapid-paced narration, we learn that during the Civil War twelve-year-old Kyle Nitburg lived in Louisiana with his beautiful mother who was a Confederate spy. Young Nitburg informs the Union army, the mother is subsequently hanged, the boy collects a one hundred dollar reward and heads for Texas.  Of course, a staple of the Western is the journey to the new Eden–but in Texas Nitburg marries, “the marriage did not go well,” and he sells his wife to the Comanches for four thousand dollars (Ibid). Rendering Nitburg’s depravity in such hyperbolic fashion, Hannah is forewarning us that in his Western anything goes, so it is no surprise that Nitburg “became a judge… (and) continued to cheat, lie and steal, and pretty soon the town and much land around it was his” (3).

Also customary for a Western is the mythical gunfighter who strolls into the corrupt town like a savior. Hannah’s legendary gunslinger is Fernando Muré, who once gunned down three angry men in a saloon by taking cover behind a card table and firing through the table itself. He wears a fedora and smokes long tan Mexican cigarettes. Women “wished he would assault them like a shovel of passion in the grave of their lusts” (7). Yet immediately after establishing Fernando as a superhuman desperado, Hannah begins to undermine him. Fernando vows to burn down the town of Nitburg–not only because it is corrupt, but because the Chinese have moved in and ruined his aspirations to open a coffin factory. As it turns out, Fernando is not Mexican but a faded southern aristocrat –a New Orleans native with a university education. He is an alcoholic and mediocre gambler who gambled all his bullets away. After proclaiming his intentions to burn down the corrupt town, Fernando the gunslinger is attacked and temporarily neutralized by the town regulator, a dwarf with a baseball bat.

Hannah subverts other stock characters as well–the doctor, the minister, the saloon madam, the schoolmarm. One reviewer likened the novel to an old rerun of Gunsmoke where everyone’s on acid. Even the villains are hardly standard fare for a Western. Smoot, the dwarf, keeps a mannequin in his room at the Nitburg Hotel, regularly bringing it out as a dinner guest. He also imagines stealing an automobile belonging to Navy Remington, a former sea captain. Smoot’s pursuit of the automobile grows complicated, though, when he develops romantic feelings for Remington’s pet monkey: “He was wild with tenderness for the animal. He could imagine nothing worse than her racing off across the plain without him” (64).

Repudiating the myth of redemptive violence, the violence in this Western serves no purpose. Luther Nix and his goons arrive and the carnage is over-the-top, Monty-Python-esque. Fernando’s burning of the town is anti-climactic, doesn’t have the anticipated effect of purging the town of its evil. Nothing is accomplished.

Never Die is an example of dark humor achieved by way of deconstructing a metanarrative. In other words, Hannah writes a darkly comic tale of the American West by breaking the rules and violating the treasured conventions of the Western. He refuses to comply with the expectations, which is what writers writing with purpose and intention always aim to do.

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