May 7, 2012


By Louise Erdrich
~5600 words

A dog named Nero stands at the center of an odd courtship dispute in the rural Midwest.

The unnamed first-person narrator tells the story, a memory from age seven, when she goes to live with her grandparents while her mother recuperates from the birth of a new baby. Her initial impressions center on Nero, the dog who guards her grandparents' grocery store, but gradually expand to include the courtship between her uncle Jurgen and her grandparents' bookkeeper Priscilla. Priscilla's jealous father challenges Jurgen to a wrestling match when the couple gets engaged, while Nero's own fascination with Priscilla's dog Mitts leads him to escape his pen on multiple occasions.

This is an odd, meandering story, but it works for the most part on the sheer quirkiness of the characters, from Uncle Jurgen's "skinny, awkward figure in steel-toed boots" to the grandmother's interjections in Polish to the future father-in-law's near-death experience as he lies in Jurgen's vise-like grip. There is also an eerie beauty in the parallel the narrator draws between the human and animal worlds, best encapsulated in her relationship with Nero:
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 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 the guts from an old pie tin. […] I had a confused sensation that we were both captive—in different bodies, true, but with only one dark way out.
As evidenced in this passage, the language is generally strong, and though one section of the story—about an exotic animal show the narrator witnessed in high school—goes on for a bit too long, "Nero" passes muster on the strength of plot, character, and imagery.


Reader poll: I found "Nero" to be ___.

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