Chapter XIII, page 113
The narrator recounts how he and Maera watch their friend Luis, who is drunk, join in a street parade. As the music pauses, he crouches and waits for it to begin again. The narrator tells Luis to come back to the hotel, but Luis tells him “You’re not my father.” The narrator returns to the hotel, where Maera comes downstairs, disgusted that Luis would not return with the narrator. The narrator calls Luis an “ignorant Mexican savage.” Maera asks who will kill the bulls after a bull tosses Luis. We will, the narrator replies. Maera says “Yes, we. We kills the savages’ bulls, and the drunkards’ bulls, and the riau-riau dancers’ bulls.”
This conversation between two matadors reveals the less than majestic side of being a matador. Luis is supposedly about to enter a bullfight while drunk, and the other matadors are resigned to having to pick up his slack after he is gored by a bull because he was too drunk to fight well. The question readers ask, of course, is why would someone face a bull—and put his life on the line—while drunk. The attitude of the narrator and Maera regarding having to fight the remaining bulls for Luis seems to be one of false bravado and resignation.
“My Old Man,” pages 115-129
Joe Butler, a young boy, looks back at the life he led with his father, a horse jockey. When they lived in Italy, he would help his father keep his weight down by running with him. “My old man,” as Joe calls his father, would dress in heavy clothes and run in the hottest part of the day in order to sweat his weight off. He would also jump rope so fast that peasants herding their cattle would stop and stare. Joe was proud of his father, who seemed to win quite a lot. But his father was always worried about gaining weight. One time, Joe observed him looking at a slim, younger jockey, and next to this young man the older man looked “too big for his silks.”
One day, Joe’s father tells him that “‘None of these things are horses, Joe. They’d kill that bunch of skates for their hides and hoofs up at Paris.’” Soon after that, Joe observes his father sitting in a café with two other men, arguing. His father sends him to fetch a paper, and when he returns, Joe hears one of the men call his father a son of a bitch before the two men leave. Joe does not understand why anyone would call his father such a name, but his father seems unperturbed. He simply says, “‘You got to take a lot of things in this world, Joe.’” Soon after that, they move to France.
They live out at Maisons in a boarding house. Joe runs around with the other kids, using a sling shot to hunt animals. Joe’s father writes to Italy for his racing license, but when it comes no one will hire him.
One day at a race, Joe follows his father into the jockey’s dressing room after looking over the horses for the upcoming race. In a whispered conversation, Joe hears a jockey, George Gardner, tell his father that the favorite, Kzar, will not win. Instead, Kircubbin will win.Based on this information, Joe’s father bets on Kircubbin, who, sure enough, wins. He tells Joe that George Gardner, Kzar’s jockey, is a good jockey. His pronouncement takes the thrill of the race out of Joe.
Joes father takes to sitting at cafes drinking whiskey and conversing with other race types. Joe enjoys sitting with him, observing the colorful people who go by, some selling things or soliciting. Joes father says that the whiskey keeps his weight down. Joe loves listening to his father tell stories about all the places he has been and about growing up in Kentucky. He tells Joe he wants him to go back to the States for schooling.
Joe’s father gets enough money together to buy a racehorse, which he trains and rides himself. In the second race he runs with the horse, Joe watches in horror as the exciting race quickly turns tragic when several horses go down. His father is crushed dead by his horse. The horse, whose front foot his broken, is shot.
At the hospital, after they cover Joe’s father with a sheet, Joe cries in George’s arms. Outside the hospital, they overhear two men talking about how Joe’s father got what was coming to him. George says not to listen to such talk, but Joe confesses, “‘But I don’t know. Seems like when they get started they don’t leave a guy nothing.’”
Through Joe’s young eyes, readers catch on that Joe’s father is a jockey aging out of his profession and desperate to find a way to make a living, even if it means using illegal betting practices. Joe is so fond of his father, the male figure in his life, that he looks the other way, although he clearly suspects that his father’s activities are not completely honest. With his father, Joe leads the perfect boy’s life, free and exciting. He looks up to his father. Joe must face reality, however, when his father dies and what is left is his bad reputation.
Chapter XIV, page 131
Maera lies on the ground, gored repeatedly by the bull. Others try to distract the bull. Men pick Maera up and carry him to the infirmary. The doctor, who had been sewing up picador horses, arrives. Maera hears the crowd shouting in the stands above the infirmary. Things seem large then small, large then small, faster and faster, as in a movie. Then Maera is dead.
Unlike so many of the bullfight vignettes, this one is told more from the perspective of the bullfighter himself, although the narrator is not Maera. Neither the narrator nor Maera reveals any emotion about Maera’s injuries or his dying; the tone suggests that dying is part of the bullfighter’s job. Readers know little about Maera, other than his disapproval of Luis’s drinking in the previous vignette and his resentment that he and the other bullfighters must take on Luis’s bulls if Luis dies. Perhaps this has occurred, and that is why Maera is in the ring?
“Big Two-Hearted River” Part I,” pages 133-142
Nick is let off a train at the town of Seney, which has burned to the ground. The hotel, houses, saloons are all gone. All this is left as it was is the river. Nick looks into the water and sees trout balancing themselves in the swift currents; the biggest fish hold steady in the fiercer current near the bottom of the river. A kingfisher moves over the river. As he looks at all this, Nick feels “all the old feeling.”
Nick straps his pack to his back and picks up his fishing gear, and he heads out. The day is hot and the pack is very heavy, but Nick feels happy to be walking. He is leaving everything behind. He sees the pine plains ahead, beyond the burned out country. He sees the blue hills near Lake Superior. He knows exactly where he is based on the river.
He stops to smoke and notices that the grasshoppers are all black instead of the reds and yellows they used to be. He thinks that the burned land has turned them black. Nick continues his walking and uses the sun to keep his direction straight. He arrives in islands of pine trees, where the ground underneath is bare because the trees are so tall. Here he slips off his pack and takes a nap.
When he wakes, the sun is nearly down. He walks a bit further, his pants getting soaked by the dewy grass. He finds a place near the river, but higher up from it, to make camp. He sees the trout rising to eat the insects hovering over the river. Nick smoothes out a spot for a tent, places down his bedding, erects a canvas tent over the spot. Over the entrance he hangs cheesecloth to keep mosquitoes out. He builds a fire, places a wire grill over it, and mixes a can of pork and beans with a can of spaghetti. He is very hungry, but he waits for the mixture to cool before eating it. He takes a bucket to the river to fill with water, and hangs this from a tree. He scoops out water to make coffee. He recalls how a friend named Hopkins always made camp coffee. He opens and eats a can of apricots, then pours the coffee into the can so that it can mix with the sweetness from the apricot juice.
He thinks further about Hopkins, who was camped on the Black River with Nick and Bill when he got a telegram saying he had struck it rich in the oil fields. He gave Nick his pistol and Bill his camera and left them, promising they would all fish together next summer. But Nick and Bill never saw him again.
Nick settles down for the night in his tent. He lights a match to burn a mosquito, but then settles down again. He goes to sleep.
Coming near the end of the book, “Big Two-Hearted River: Part I” begins to bring Nick Adam’s story full circle. He began the book as a child learning about becoming a man. He went to war and became a man. He came home from war, trying to puzzle out how to be a man after what he had seen. Now, he comes home, back to the woods. Being back in the old country, among the river and the trout and the trees, moving on his own, separated from all society, Nick can find himself again. The hunger inside him is being sated. In the woods, life seems simple and large, uncomplicated, boiled down to the simple pleasures of watching trout feed, making coffee over a fire, sleeping beneath the stars.