by Jakob Ryce / 23rd October, 2017
On the surface, Suzette is the story of a man who purchases a trophy show cow in the hope it will bring luck and fortune to his broken family. However, this short story by Gabe Herron is woven with deeply emotional sagacity, haunting imagery and heart wrenching tragedy. In this analytical piece I’m going to discuss the writer’s style, themes and his approach to detail.
We are introduced to a man who is selling his father’s rifle after spending a fortune on Suzette: the show cow. The backstory is compressed into a paragraph, yet provides us with the main idea: the animal is more than he can afford, and even the selling of his father’s rifle can’t balance the scales.
The relationship between the main character and his wife is beautifully executed. There is such tenderness and grace in their struggle. When Amy explodes and bolts out the door after he brings Suzette home, there is an instant act of forgiveness: ‘I forgave her quick as a quail.’ The writer uses a simile here, but chooses a quail – something he may have hunted as a boy with his father. Every line is considered with careful precision, and these small moments build the narrative with subtle exposition, using naturalistic dialogue:
‘Amy ran her hand down the length of her. “Suzette, you’re about the most beautiful calf I’ve ever seen.” A sob leapt out. She caught it and folded her arms across it.’
The writer doesn’t simply say, she made a sobbing sound, he personifies it by creating the action of Amy squeezing her chest, and the sob becomes it: something she must try and stifle. The main character’s apology in this scene is heartfelt, and the imagery of the couple embracing is stirring:
‘I walked over and hugged her from behind, wrapped my arms around her slender shoulders … we rocked in the slow darkness of the barn.’
The use of first person narration is consistently intimate and effective throughout the piece. The description of ‘slow darkness’ is both evocative, yet calming, and the writer then moves the scene into the bedroom: ‘That evening we saved each other in the bedroom …’ The use of the phrase ‘saved each other’ feels deeply poignant – he could have said loved but he chooses a verb which means: to rescue from danger. The danger being their dying son (and their financially crippled lives), and this is their attempt at a ‘final salvation’ – to see if their love is enough.
The father is a recurring memory within the story – especially when he is preparing to fell the giant maple tree. We are offered a paragraph that reads like poetry, as the character attempts to make peace with himself. Then the writer cleverly intersects the actions within the narrative:
‘I remembered all the hours spent under it as a child with my own father. I move the choke forward. I could recall the hours I spent under it with my grandfather … I pull the starter cord …’
I felt this was extremely effective, both rhythmically and symbolically. And then once the tree is felled: ‘I’m the man that made that stump … and there was no more shade left …’ The loss is beating down on him like a harsh sun, only his guilt is left; or so we are led to believe:
‘I felt my father had been there with me as I felled that tree … how he used to do when I’d done something that pleased him as a boy.’
There is a chasm forming within the character – confusion, fear and an unwillingness to face the facts: ‘I was becoming annealed toward my own life. And I didn’t like the unfeelingness of it. No one wants to feel like a stone …’
And then the narrator’s voice becomes even more untrustworthy:
‘I wondered if my mind was going …
I was changing.
I was changed.
It was a fright to us both.’
As the character leads Suzette into the field, we hear his confessions. He is unable to confront the death of his son, albeit through the use of metaphor:
‘She was truly a flawless creature—simple and perfect. The finest animal I’ve ever seen. The finest animal I was ever going to own.’
The writer has already used the tree as foreshadowing – cloaked as an excuse for the character to raise more revenue.
The riffle is the first sacrifice.
The tree is the second sacrifice.
Suzette is the third sacrifice:
‘The grass caught her blood before it could make the sound of spilling against the earth, no sounds at all but for her rattled breathing … my own blood filled my ears …’
And the tragedy comes full circle – the tree, the father, the rifle, and the prize cow (his hope) can not save their child, and as he burns the carcass of the cow, he is really saying goodbye to his son:
‘I watched as it carried her away through the sky in a straight dark line. I knew then with certainty. And I could feel myself being answered. This would be enough.’
The son is the final sacrifice.
The writer achieves a story of downtrodden grief – tackling themes of value, loss and endurance. It isn’t overly dramatised and maintains a grounded, poetic narrative. I’ve never read a short story that can achieve this level of detail, and yet offer so much weight and cataclysm, within a mere 12 pages. An extraordinary achievement.
I ended up writing to Gabe. I wanted to express my appreciation for his story and his work. He replied and was sincere, encouraging and open, enjoyed my analysis and believed it accurately captured the sentiment behind the themes of the story. What more is there to say, he's just a lovely chap and a wonderful writer. You can find Gabe's stories here.