Louise Erdrich: “Nero”

05/03/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 7, 2012.

Nero’s a tough dog in a tough house, the sort in which a seven-year-old girl-in-boy’s clothes notes that “[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.” Next door (or downstairs, it’s not quite clear) is their grocery store, which includes a butcher shop and slaughterhouse, and all we know is that by the end of this story, Nero will be dead, as in the future from which this story is narrated, she notes that “somewhere in the field behind the closed shop the bone of Nero whitely petrify.” Okay, then: I can see how the potentially traumatic nature of these events in a child’s development might leave such a strong impression, but that’s a misdirect by the author, for by the second section, we get this:

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 then I felt the first intimations of sympathy for another form of creation, for Nero, who had to eat guts from an old pie tin.

So the story, then, is a contrast between the humanity buried within the trained-to-be-savage Nero (“as a guard dog, [he] wasn’t treated with human affection”), the loved ones in this seven-year-old’s life — particularly Uncle Jurgen, a ropy, inevitable sort of man –, and and the little girl herself, taking it all in. The main parallel rests in Nero’s attempts to escape the backyard so that he might take up with “a mean snub-nosed cocker spaniel named Mitts,” and Uncle Jurgen’s wooing of Mitts’s owner, Priscilla, and the “fence” she has of a father — Mr. Gamrod, a man whose violent, “jealous dependence” must first be scaled by the calm man and his “dogged pursuit” before he can openly claim Priscilla. (And he’s got patience: watch how he tames the fussy Mitts. She bites him, he flicks her nose. She bites him, he flicks her nose. By the fourth time, she now allows him to pick her up. His fingers are so calloused, he can take it; this is a man well-armored by patience.) A further echo is presented just before Jurgen faces Mr. Gamrod in a rather public fight: we flash back to an earlier memory of the girl’s, in which an exotic animal trainer is momentarily overcome by his Burmese python. This is why Jurgen’s crushing submission technique looks like to the girl. But this is also where things start to strain and fall apart.

What’s with the two pythons (Burmese, African rock) that appear in the flashback, or with the girl’s disconnected thought about being “marked forever by the python’s kiss”? Normally, when you embed a story within a story, you tend to focus on the relevant parts of the former in relation to the latter, but Erdrich seems unfocused, and that in turn infects what follows the vivid fight sequence. Now, with less than a page left, there’s perhaps too much for the author to resolve, and so Jurgen, having won Priscilla, now inexplicably sets up an electrified fence . . . and stubborn old Nero, rather than being scared off, bites through the wire, shoring out the electricity in the house. This doesn’t kill him, mind you — a lovelorn dog’s scrappy suicide — and it’s paired with Mr. Gamrod’s own near-death experience (from Jurgen’s submission hold), the way in which he no longer seems to fear death, as all the answers are on the other side. Neither seems particularly relevant to the theme of the story, and Erdrich goes so far as to point out that “I didn’t get to see a change in Nero, either. He was still quietly recovering when I left, sleeping long days in the pine needles.” What little resolution there is, then, comes from a hasty conclusion’s leaps — six months to next winter, then another six to summer. Images: Nero, now in a large cage, his ability to leap over the fence limned by the thick wire; Nero, teeth broken from restlessly chewing on iron, replaced by an “electrical alarm system,” and then abruptly shot by Jurgen. Our eight-year-old narrator is entrusted to help bury him: in what? A sea of the many, many questions that Erdrich has left us with?

It’s possible that I’ve been following this story down the wrong hole, misled by the title and the early comparisons between the dog and his master, fooled by the girl’s supposedly wizened future-voice talking about the impact her eye-to-eye meeting with Nero had, but if that’s the case, I blame the author. Misdirects in fiction generally lead to an earned surprise, often something simple that the author wishes us to appreciate in greater detail now that we’ve earned it. Here, the entire story seems as if it’s just chasing its tail; I remain unimpressed.

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