We humans as a species have difficulty accepting that our heroes are made of the same plain stuff as the rest of us, which is why it can be so difficult to write a hero story in which the protagonist’s heroic actions appear, well, human. Rolf Yngve’s story, “A Prerogative,” (Kenyon Review March/April 2015) explores the complex nature of heroism through a retired military officer whose actions are never anything less—or more—than human.
We meet the protagonist, Ehrlich, soon after he’s left early from a civilian job he’s taken after a decades-long military career. He’s planning on trimming the roses and relaxing once he gets home, nothing more. Through this, and the nonchalant first line, “Erlich was not an unhappy man,” Yngve is setting the table for the rest of the story by stressing that there is nothing particular noteworthy that will explain what is to come.
What comes first is traffic brought on by what he believes to be a mere fender bender. Instead of passing by, Ehrlich pulls over to help. Then Yngve again tamps down our desire to find something special in the protagonist, an explanation, perhaps a virtue for why he stopped: “He would never know why” he did it, and neither will we. It was nothing special; it was simply his prerogative.
The true cause of the traffic is a young woman threatening to jump from the bridge. Ehrlich identifies with her immediately, comparing her to some of his previous employees in times of difficulty. “Her cheeks were wet. When people this young worked for him in the navy, Ehrlich had always kept a box of Kleenex on his desk.” He tries for a moment to convince her to move away from the edge, but she’s angry, and resists his pleas. She asks him, “What do you know?” He thinks:
“What did he know? There was no wind on the bridge. There was no shade. Light poles stretched up on either side of the roadway and above, a vertigo sky. Maybe she had a right, her prerogative, but he couldn’t leave, and he couldn’t bear the idea of seeing her fall.”
While the story shifts here in its exploration of prerogatives—the right to leave work early sometimes, the right to help someone in need, and now the right to take one’s own life—easy to miss is another quiet establishment of Ehrlich’s humanity. What did he know? Nothing more than anyone else, it seems.
And this is key, because Yngvie’s next move is massive. Ehrlich says to the young woman, “‘You don’t need to jump,’ he said. ‘I’ll do it for you.’” I’ll sacrifice my life in place of yours—this statement is classic, iconic, evoking directly the move of a guy from Galilee that a substantial portion of the world’s population believe is God. We are in Christ-figure territory—which can so easily fall into cliché—but here it works, because we don’t see it coming, and neither does Ehrlich. A lesser story might have in the early pages painted Ehrlich as a deacon, or perhaps a character in some sort of spiritual distress—but there’s none of that here. His response was improvisation with no heavy symbolism attached.
The story slows down, further resisting the pull of the symbolic. They argue about the absurdity of claim, and in doing so they slowly change roles. The young woman is angry at being forced into the role of trying to talk a grandstanding Ehrlich off the ledge, but something strange happens inside of Ehrlich. He begins entertaining the idea of jumping in earnest. Amidst his pretending, when he accidentally breaks his Blackberry on the pavement taking off his jacket, he ponders the implications of jumping. “Then it occurred to him, he really didn’t have to care about a broken cell phone, did he? It was a strange sort of freedom, imagining for a moment he wouldn’t have to worry about filling out the form, the pittance it would cost to replace that gear…”
Our hero Ehrlich isn’t above that same draw to escape it all, and this leads to further, darker ruminations of his own situation. When the young woman, now safely on the bridge walk, intuits the change, and begins in earnest to try to talk him out of it, this is how he, in his mind, responds.
“Maybe now she cared? Then he realized it made no difference to him whether or not she cared. Would they put something in the papers? Would those people watching from the ship know this was just another old ex-navy asshole, not even full of regret, just tired? Empty.”
…and further along,
“It occurred to him that he could get her to jump with him if he wanted to do so. That would make the papers for sure.”
…but then, moments later, she’s worried about him.
“The girl had clamped both arms over the top of the barrier. Now she was afraid. Now she was safe.”
As the opening line said, “Ehrlich was not an unhappy man.” But neither, we see, is he happy. He is like the rest of us: able to entertain and enact empathetically and altruistically as well as desiring escape and revenge and despair, one after the other, really all at the same time. He wants to save this young woman’s life—who, now that their roles have switched, we know is named Casey—but in the process of doing so realizes he’s not so sure he wants to save his own.
In this the two characters are now intimately connected, and we see there are very alike, and alike us as well. So is Ehrlich a hero? Is now Casey? For Yngve, it seems heroism doesn’t deliver us from our complicated humanity so much as thrust us deeper into it—and each other’s.