"Nero" by Louise Erdrich Originally published in the May 7, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
This is a strange little story I can’t quite make sense of — though I did enjoy it. The narrator is an older woman looking back to when she was seven and spent a few weeks with her grandparents while her own parents prepared for the birth of a sibling. The opening paragraph is great as it introduces the perhaps slightly paranoid world of her grandparents. First, we meet the guard dog, Nero, who at night is set out to pace in front of the cash register in the grandparents’ grocery store. Then we meet the grandfather who “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.”
While the little girl is there, she witnesses the development of parallel love stories. Her uncle Jurgen is secretly courting the grocery store’s bookkeeper, Priscilla Gamrod. Priscilla has a “mean snub-nosed cocker spaniel named Mitts,” and every day Nero spends his time trying to figure out a way over the fence to find Mitts.
Both love affairs seem doomed. For one, Nero is hardly trained for love. While the smaller dogs are treated with affection, Nero is handled at a distance, the thinking being that the lack of human affection will make the dog more apt to going after any perceived threat. As for Jurgen and Priscilla, there’s Priscilla’s father standing in the way.
Priscilla was twenty-five, but she still lived with him. Her mother had died, leaving the two of them bound by a grief that eased with time but was replaced by Mr. Gamrod’s jealous dependence. This had got so bad that he insisted on fighting any man who tried to court her. He’d beaten them all.
When Mr. Gamrod finds out about the relationship, he and Jurgen schedule a time and place for the fight.
I won’t go into how the story moves from here, but one of the interesting aspects of the story is the relationship between Jurgen and Nero and between the narrator and Nero. Jurgen is a bit small, his muscles stringy and tight. No one thinks he’s going to win the fight, but he goes calmly. It’s the same kind of calm he has when we see him subduing animals, such as those he needs to wrestle before their slaughter and even Mitts, whom he flicks on the nose each time she bites his hand until “Jurgen is inevitable.” He doesn’t subdue Nero, though, for the reasons already laid out. Nero is high-strung and destructive, almost mad.
How does the little girl fit into all of this? I’m working this out, enjoyably. We see that she has a connection with Nero that no one else has. She sympathizes with him and even feels in him a kindred spirit: “For I had a confused sensation that we were both captive — in different bodies, true, but with only one dark way out.” Later in the story, we learn of another connection the little girl has with a wild animal, that time with an escaped python who slithered over to the terrified girl, touched her cheek with its tongue, and then moved on.
So there are a several interlacing elements in this story, and I haven’t quite reconciled them all. In fact, I I believe my ultimate estimation of the story will be dependent on that reconciliation; at this time, I’d still recommend Erdrich’s last New Yorker story, “The Yeard of My Birth” over this one, but “Nero” is an interesting read nonetheless. Happy to get any help from the comments.