Louise Erdrich: “Nero” from The New Yorker, May 7, 2012

New Yorker photo by Birthe Piontek: "Front Yard"

New Yorker photo by Birthe Piontek: “Front Yard”

As I looked into his eyes, which were the same brownish gold as mine, I had my first sensation of self-awareness. I realized that my human body, my human life, was arbitrary. I could have been a dog. An exhilarating sadness gripped me, and I felt the first intimations of sympathy for another form of creation, for Nero, who had to eat guts from an old pie tin.

Girl meets guard dog. Girl looks in dog’s eyes and realizes girl could have been dog. Girl is sad.

Girl’s grandfather, with whom girl is living for a few weeks while girl’s mom has baby, is tough old coot and grocery-store-butcher-shop-slaughterhouse owner who establishes tough-cootness and disappears from story:

[My grandfather] slept behind a locked door with my grandmother on one side of him and a loaded gun on the other. This was not a place where a child got up at night to ask for a glass of water.

Girl’s grandmother is likewise tough old bird who hands girl pie plate of offal to feed dog and leaves her with valuable life advice: “Throw down the guts if he rushes you.”

Who’s left? Uncle Jurgen, who slaughters the animals by wrestling them into submission, letting them struggle and wear themselves out until he can slit their throats with the precision needed to collect the blood for blood sausage.

Hmmm. You might not want to read this story over lunch.

Uncle Jurgen’s also in a perpetual struggle with Nero – who works as guard dog at night in the store – building the fence in the back yard higher and higher to keep Nero from escaping. But Nero keeps trying to run away during the day because he’s in love with Mitts.

Oh, yeah, Mitts. Priscilla owns Mitts, a vicious little cocker spaniel who bites anyone within reach. Priscilla breeds to a “papered stud” once a year so she can sell the puppies.

Nobody knew if Mitts preferred Lord Keith to Nero, because she bit every dog and person within her reach. Priscilla, with her bandaged fingers, often had to cope with Nero’s longing, but she never called the city dogcatcher.

Priscilla is the bookkeeper at the store-butchershop-slaughterhouse. At twenty-five, she still lives with her saloon-keeper father, who insists on fighting all of her beaux when they start to show more than casual interest. She’s been ok with this since no one’s really grabbed her fancy… until now. She and Uncle Jurgen are getting serious, as we used to say back when “hooked up” described telephones, not relationships.

Girl goes to visit Priscilla:

When Priscilla answered the door, Mitts barked viciously and darted for my ankle, but Priscilla elegantly kicked her dog down the hall with the pointed toe of her shoe. Mitts rolled, skidded, and trotted sullenly before us into the kitchen. She slumped in her pillowed corner, glowering as only a cocker spaniel can glower, while Priscilla sat me at the table and warmed some sugared milk with a bit of coffee in a small blue pan. She also made me cinnamon toast.

One of the charms of this story (which I did like, in spite of my half-assed way of discussing it) is that the lines between people and animals keeps getting blurred. I kept thinking Priscilla was slumped and glowering, and I’m still not sure who the warm sugared milk with coffee –today we’d call it latte – was for.

Another thing I like about this story: it’s told in first person from the girl’s point of view, but from the vantage point of the future, when all the lessons have been digested and the import of it all has been realized. We’re never told exactly how these events affected the girl, but they must be significant to her. This piece started as a memoir – the visit, the grandparents, the store, the dog, the realization, are all real; the skinny uncle and Priscilla, along with her dog and her father, are fictional.

The actual plot of the story – that above is all just background, see? – starts when Mr. Gamrod insists on his traditional fight with Uncle Jurgen if he wants Priscilla’s hand. Gamrod is the odds-on favorite, since he bounces drunks regularly and Jurgen is a scrawny little thing.

During the fight, the little girl remembers a traveling animal show that visited her school once. It’s the sort of thing no principal would allow today – bringing pythons and tarantulas into an elementary school auditorium, god, the liability – and it’s kind of a hilarious scene, in a Northern Plains Keystone Kops way. The python escapes and squeezes the presenter, the tarantula goes flying “like a flailing discus,” and all hell breaks loose. This is the image the little girl remembers as Uncle Jurgen fights Mr. Gamrod just like he slaughters animals – without the throat slit, of course.

Mr. Gamrod is changed by the experience:

Mr. Gamrod could not stop talking about his trip to the other world….how in the clutch of Jurgen’s limbs he had died and come to life again. He had not walked into the light. He had not seen Jesus. The only way he could explain it was to say that he had been suspended in a timeless present that held the key to…something. He’d felt his arm pound the earth just as he was about to grasp the meaning of it. A few days later, he realized he was no longer afraid. After death he would understand the answers to questions that in life he couldn’t even put into words. Aside from this new assurance, Mr. Gamrod didn’t seem much changed.

I like the change that doesn’t seem to be a change, as though Gamrod is deflecting his shock at losing by any means available.

As Uncle Jurgen wins his right to Priscilla, he comes up with a plan to keep Nero penned: he puts electrified wire around the top of the now-eight-foot fence. I like that, too: his freedom, and Nero’s, come to an end at the same time. Except he’s giving his up voluntarily.

Now it’s time for the little girl to go home, but on a family visit six months later, she finds Nero in bad shape. He now lives in a chicken coop and has broken his teeth on an iron cauldron. He’s useless for guard dog duty, but the store has an electric security system now. Eventually Uncle Jurgen and the little girl take him out in the back woods and shoot him.

It’s a little off-kilter, this story. You know how sometimes the sound track and picture are a little out of sync on a tv show or movie – not much, just a microsecond, and everything just seems off though you can’t clearly see the lips are moving before the sound? That’s a little like what it is. The humor doesn’t quite come off. In fact, it took a while to realize there was humor. Everyone has their realization, but the realizations aren’t united; they aren’t the same, of course, because that would be corny, but they just seem… disjointed. Like refracted light.

Erdrich explains some of this in her Book Bench interview with editor Deborah Treisman:

You probably read more short stories than anyone else on earth, so you know the rules. If a person gets romantic justice in the story, the dog must suffer, or vice versa.

I did not know there was a Rule of Balanced Romantic Justice for Dogs and People. But it makes sense there would be. Too much parallelism would be Lifetime Movie territory.

I get the “Call of the Wild” thing about confinement, freedom, breaking. Do they really work together, though? The story reads heavy to me – almost ponderous – in places where it should be lively and fun. I’m all for the rule of opposites in fiction – treat the trivial seriously and the serious lightly, balance out content and tone – but somehow it doesn’t quite work for me here. It’s worth a read, though. Just not over lunch.

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5 responses to “Louise Erdrich: “Nero” from The New Yorker, May 7, 2012

  1. I just finished this one. I actually didn’t think it was unfairly heavy. I mean, it was heavy, yes, but I felt that almost like an oppressive atmosphere–everything is so rigid, there is no escape.

    I did not know about the Rule of Balanced Romantic Justice for Dogs and People either. I always just though you didn’t kill the dog because people would hate you!

    • I once watched a movie, Tom Hanks and a dog, some kind of romantic comedy (not between Tom Hanks and the dog… no no no, that wouldn’t do at all, there was an actress in there somewhere) – and I was outraged that the dog died in the end. It just wasn’t fair, they didn’t set it up that way at all. I think the dog left behind a litter, so that was supposed to take the sting out of it – but dang, if you’re gonna kill the dog, don’t do it in a Tom Hanks romantic comedy!

      You can tell how this infuriated me since I remember how angry I was, but I’m pretty vague on the details of the movie itself.

      I won’t even mention another movie, and how embarrassed I was to cry, in front of friends’ kids, when the robot died.

  2. Pingback: Louise Erdrich–”Nero” (New Yorker, May 7, 2012) « I Just Read About That…

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