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Louise Erdrich: “Nero”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Louise Erdrich’s “Nero” was originally published in the May 7, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

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” (thoughts here) over this one, but “Nero” is an interesting read nonetheless.  Happy to get any help from the comments.

7 thoughts on “Louise Erdrich: “Nero””

  1. Aaron says:

    I’d help you if I could, Trevor, but I’m as much at a loss as you. The difference in our reactions, however, is that I don’t like feeling fooled by a story: the set-up, as you say, hints at parallels between the dog’s stubborn scramble for Mitts and between Jurgen’s “dogged pursuit” of Priscilla, and the “inevitability” of him. (You could read him, perhaps, as a metaphor for death, too, in that he gives Mr. Gamrod a near-death experience, and then eventually, abruptly, shoots Nero. But I fail to see how that’s relevant, and that pisses me off.)

    Thematically, the story suggests that there’s a connection between this girl and the dog, too, something that was so life-changing to her that, as an older woman, she cannot help but flashback to this moment and remember it, just as she remembers the exotic animals. And yet . . . neither story really seems to leave a mark on her, to change her. That seems like a non-point.

    And then there’s the hasty ending, which leaps six months ahead at a time in order to circle back to that poetic bit of foreshadowing in which we know that “somewhere in the field behind the closet shop the bones of Nero whitely petrify.” (This, too, is irksome. She buried him, but doesn’t remember where? I thought she could’ve been a dog….)

    I admired some of the writing — Erdrich does have a way with painting these vivid images — but as I said, I was all the more frustrated, then, by my inability to reach any sort of conclusion from these moments. Are we sure that *this* isn’t the excerpt from something? This feels far more incomplete to me than some of the other stories we’ve seen lately.

  2. Aaron says:

    (I’ve got some other thoughts here: http://bit.ly/IGstpj.)

  3. Trevor says:

    Hmmmm, I’m not sure I like being fooled by stories, either, Aaron :) .

    If it turns out that this is just a cobbled together story, with no real concern for reconciliation (not that reconciliation is always required, but here I think so), I will not be able to rate this story highly at all, despite any enjoyment I felt (or hoped to feel in the end) while reading it. I’m okay with the loose structure so long as there’s some method to the combinations, so I hope I’m not hipocritical by giving this one more of a shot than the last few.

    Along those lines, Erdrich said this is not an excerpt in her interview. The interview does suggest there’s some basis for the “cobbled together” theory, though. She wrote the first paragraphs years ago, perhaps as the basis for a future memoir, perhaps even something long. There it sat and she finally finished it as a piece of fiction, and currently has no plans to expand.

  4. jerry says:

    i see where you both are driving but i loved it, my fave story from the magazine so far this year. And according to Erdrich it’s not going to be part of a novel so hooray for that!

  5. Roger says:

    I enjoyed it. I also viewed Jurgen as a metaphor for death,for the reasons Aaron mentioned and also because of his solemn, creepy effectiveness as executioner of the animals whose meat is later sold by grandpa the butcher. Like many works of fiction from the POV of an adult looking back at her childhood, this is a coming of age story. Here, the narrator is recalling how she first became deeply acquainted with the transcendent, “inevitable” power of death, as personified by Jurgen and visited upon Nero. My only complaint is the flashback-within-the-flashback about the exotic animals. It broke the momentum of the narrative, was hard to believe at the literal level, and was both heavy-handed and gratuitous, what with the scary snakes doing their symbolic dark thing. The rest of the story struck me as strong enough to withstand this flaw, though.

  6. Trevor says:

    After a few rereads, I’m situating myself more confidently in the “this is a good to great story” camp. Both Nero and Jurgen represent so much to the young girl as she is growing up and it is through her eyes that we see their parallels and differences, particularly in regards to sex and death and the wildness within us.

    Roger, you bring up a good point about that tangent, though. I can’t argue that it is effective or necessary in any way.

  7. Ken says:

    Odd but I found this rather thin and light. I enjoyed it but didn’t find much more than some fun anecdotes and nostalgia here. Perhaps I should read it again. I read it when tired in a motel room.

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