New Meridian Arts, 2022
he central premise of Blue Rhinoceros—Jesse Salvo’s darkly humorous debut—revolves around a murder in a small town in upstate New York. One of the many peculiar pleasures of this multi-layered, elliptically constructed novel is that it comes wrapped—misleadingly—in the outward trappings of a classic gumshoe detective thriller. A well-dressed dame walks through the door, seeking to hire a world-weary investigator to look into a mysterious and largely forgotten crime. In Chandleresque fashion, as old witnesses are interviewed and mossy rocks overturned, the scope of the investigation expands into increasingly sinister territory, implicating the hidden machinations of the highest echelons of industry and government, and the devious entities who work behind the scenes to protect the interests of the powerful and the wealthy.
But Blue Rhinoceros isn’t a gumshoe detective thriller, and to the credit of its author, it doesn’t really pretend to be one either. Salvo is after something more original and substantial than the gimmick of subverting a well-trod genre. Although populated by a cast of delightfully eccentric characters subjected to an outlandish cascade of improbable crises, the novel grapples with serious moral and ethical concerns, casting a grim eye on the flawed nature of humanity and our uncertain collective fate.
So. The present year is 2030, but this isn’t a science fiction novel either, and the world of the near future seems much like the world of the present, if slightly worse for wear. The rich dame in the doorway is Sairy Wellcomme, a professional zoologist, young but well-regarded in her field. The door she walks through belongs to the squalid, one-room cabin of Thomas Entrecarceles, who is not a private dick, but a former journalist—once a household name, but now, due to a well-publicized scandal in his career, so disgraced that he can’t even find work bagging groceries. The crime Sairy is willing to pay Thomas to investigate took place 17 years ago in her hometown of Littoral, NY: the murder of Beebop, the last living African blue rhinoceros on earth.
As it turns out, Sairy already knows who murdered Beebop. She did, at the age of 12, exactly two days after both her parents died in a terrible accident. What Sairy wants Thomas to investigate is why she murdered the last blue rhinoceros. She has no memory whatsoever of the event.
Thus is established the central mystery that spins the Rube Goldberg plot into motion. The course of the novel will swing back and forth between Thomas’s present-day sleuthing in 2030—sifting through old news archives on the internet, tracking down witnesses all over the back roads of New York State—and his reconstruction of the preposterous chain of events that unfolded in 2012, culminating in the death of a rhinoceros at the hands of a 12-year-old girl.
Early in his investigation, Thomas discovers that Sairy’s parents died on a particularly significant day in the history of Littoral. As it happens, many, many other townspeople were also killed that day, in a catastrophic industrial accident so memorably bizarre and grotesque that I’ll refrain from spoiling it for readers.
The events of that day will be revisited, over and over, from a wide range of divergent perspectives. In the process we will be introduced to a motley assortment of offbeat characters—all, in some way, deformed by their traumatic pasts, and all, in some way, responsible for inflicting trauma upon others. We’ll meet a despairing pet shop owner ruined by a hurricane. A preternaturally gifted child who breaks a blind prisoner out of jail with the aid of a canoe. A sociopathic corporate spy, fond of prosthetic noses and fake beards, who may or may not work for the CIA. And we will spend a great deal of time with the Rude Mechanicals, an off-the-grid cabal of outlaw activists devoted to providing humanitarian aid at various national disasters around the country, founded by a trio of odd bedfellows: Robert Vicaray, environmentalist and accidental millionaire; Oscar Louder, an embittered insurance adjuster; and Sam Herbert, a nebbishy financial whiz-kid. All of their paths will lead to the Pavilion of the Abandoned Future, and at the center of it all lies the mystery of Sairy Wellcomme and the last blue rhinoceros.
(By the way, I should note that outside of this eponymous novel—at least as far as I can determine from my very cursory internet research—there is no such creature as a blue rhinoceros, African or otherwise. But Salvo takes great care to make us believe there is such a creature, and he certainly had me convinced.)
This is a novel strewn with marvelously absurd catastrophes, but for the unfortunate characters of Blue Rhinoceros, the undeniable absurdity of the tragedies that befall them only adds insult to injury. This is, indeed, one of the recurrent themes of the novel—that unexpected disasters happen to ordinary people all the time, but we look away and tell ourselves such experiences are anomalous, exceptional, because they don’t fit into the reassuring narratives we have built our lives around. American popular culture—largely shaped by self-serving capitalist interests—has conditioned us to believe that so long as we work hard and play by the rules, we will be duly rewarded with our fair share of prosperity, comfort, and safety. But when bad things happen, the façade is ripped away, exposing the American Dream for the empty illusion it is and always has been.
When you consider, in aggregate, the astonishing daily headlines generated in the real world, the freakish calamities of Blue Rhinoceros don’t seem so far-fetched. In a Connecticut suburb, a reclusive, mentally-ill young man, obsessed with firearms and Dance Dance Revolution, woke up one morning, murdered his mother, and then proceeded to the local elementary school where, in a span of five minutes, he systematically executed twenty small children and several adults, and then shot himself in the head. Why would someone do such a terrible thing? There’s never a satisfying answer to that question. In the aftermath, Alex Jones, a sleazy YouTube conspiracy theorist, somehow managed to convince large segments of his viewership that this stomach-turning atrocity was staged by paid actors, encouraging his followers to harass the grieving parents. Why would someone do such a terrible thing? Well, in Jones’ case, the motivation was clear: to generate thousands of viewer subscriptions and sell a lot of dodgy nutritional supplements. Apparently, the enterprise has been quite profitable—Jones was recently sued by the Sandy Hook parents for nearly a billion dollars. (He plans, of course, to appeal.)
Or consider the case of Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, who recently amused himself by shipping busloads of desperate asylum-seekers—from Texas—to the wealthy liberal enclave of Martha’s Vineyard, with all the moral consideration of a teenager ordering a pizza for the neighbors as a prank. Why? Because sometimes—as Adam Serwer of The Atlantic put it—the cruelty is the point.
As the human race has grown into a single global network, deep-rooted irrationality, greed, and cussed human nature are now writ large, encoded into vast systemic structures that threaten the very survival of our species. “Whatever happened to digging the well for the man who comes after?” wonders Robert Vicaray, the founding member of the Rude Mechanicals. A radical environmentalist who grew up in a known cancer-belt and helplessly watched his mother sicken and die, he has begun to suspect that he is “living through the commission of a new form of genocide.” For decades, politicians and industry lobbyists have ridiculed the dire warnings of climate scientists; now that profound environmental changes have become self-evident to all but a stubborn few, the nay-sayers have switched tactics. They’ll admit, begrudgingly, that some unusual and unpleasant climate events might be occurring, but simultaneously insist that human activity has played no role in causing them, and should therefore play no role in preventing or addressing them. Business must go on as usual, regardless of the existential stakes. Meanwhile, California and Colorado are burning, and hurricanes strike the eastern seaboard with increasing frequency and strength, most recently Hurricane Ian, the fifth worst storm to hit the United States in recorded history. Lives lost, homes destroyed, communities devastated, families displaced. As Kurt Vonnegut would say: So it goes.
Acts of God, Acts of Man. The distinction is a crucial one to Oscar Louder, the insurance adjuster who, out of a kind of moral exhaustion, eventually throws in his lot in with the Rude Mechanics. “Active God,” muses a desperate claimant who has lost his business in a disaster. “Didn’t know the insurance companies had religion.” But what the man really wants to know, with great urgency, is how he’s going to pay his overdue loans and keep food on his family’s table. In an instructive passage, Oscar methodically explains how insurance policies work in natural disasters, how insurance companies and government agencies, guided by rational self-interest, do their utmost to refuse or delay claims, and how this frustrating process can be further stymied by legislation in those states—such as Florida—that forbid individual claimants from directly negotiating with Federal agencies such as FEMA, forcing disaster victims to rely on the intermediary of their own recalcitrant, self-interested insurance companies.
Acts of God are compounded by Acts of Man. In Oscar’s travels with the Rude Mechanicals, he witnesses the human costs firsthand and increasingly finds the distinction between God and Man blurred. “Cui bono?” he is fond of muttering to himself. Large, impersonal organizations somehow always manage to reap a profit from human misery.
We are, of course, just emerging—or so we hope—from a spectacularly notable global disaster, accompanied by an unprecedented tidal wave of death and misery, and, alas, by a proportionate measure of cruelty, stupidity, malfeasance, and profiteering. It is not all surprising to learn from the Author’s Note—which you should definitely read—that much of this novel was composed during the height of the pandemic while the author was sequestered under lockdown at his home in Seville.
A smoldering moral outrage burns through Blue Rhinoceros. As one of the two first-person narrators—we’ll get to the second momentarily—Thomas Entrecarceles, the disgraced journalist, is a well-chosen vehicle for the fury: articulate, erudite, and deeply familiar with the evil ways of the world. When we first meet him, he is a ruined man, shunned by his former colleagues and friends, scorned by the public, and brutally betrayed by someone he loved. Indeed, he has been quite soberly considering suicide when Sairy walks through his door. It’s hard to say why Sairy’s case, bizarre though it is, intrigues him enough to put his plans to end his life on hold. Thomas seems indifferent to the great sum of money Sairy offers him to investigate her past; this is a stopgap, at best, and no amount of money will restore his former life. Curiosity, perhaps, at least initially. It’s as good a reason as any to keep on living. Or perhaps the case offers Thomas one last chance to practice his former vocation, to painstakingly excavate the scattered shards of a long-forgotten story and piece them back together. But there’s something deeper, murkier, at work here, some dark and unresolved metaphysical suspicion troubling his soul.
The case takes over Thomas’s life, and he is often driven to extraordinary lengths in his quest to reconstruct the circumstances surrounding Sairy and the blue rhinoceros. The disaster that struck Littoral seventeen years ago was spectacularly newsworthy, and yet it has been largely forgotten by the world. The living witnesses Thomas tracks down don’t want to talk about that terrible day, or the terrible things that happened in its aftermath. Why? Grief, shame, and complicity all play a role, but as the scope of the investigation expands, Thomas begins to attract the attention of more sinister entities who would prefer that this particular skeleton stays buried. His life is threatened more than once. Thomas remains undeterred, determined to find his way to the center of the web, until he begins to discern the shape of something so unthinkable that even he recoils in disbelief.
In Thomas’s private narrative, we are presented with the reconstructed events of 2012 as they happen, often from the intimate viewpoints of the characters who experienced them. But research on a long-cold case like this can only take you so far. Another narrator—one with far greater powers of omniscience—steps in to fill in the gaps: the author himself. In the Author’s Note to Blue Rhinoceros (I told you to read it) Salvo warns us that he plans to intrude, but insists that he is “an altogether different person, with different opinions and a different disposition, from the wretchedly jaded Thomas Entrecarceles,” who is “very much his own person.” To help us distinguish between the two, Salvo will identify himself “as ‘this writer’ as opposed to Mr. Entrecarceles’ favored ‘this journalist’.”
To this reader, that predetermined scheme seems to be something of an elaborate ruse. Entrecarceles’ voice, style, and, indeed, opinions and disposition, are generally indistinguishable from Salvo’s. If those identifying tags (“journalist,” “writer”) were deployed to indicate which narrator was on deck, I failed to take notice, generally too engrossed in the story to care. Whether reconstructed or decanted straight from the source, the events of 2012 are recounted from an omniscient point-of-view, dipping into individual characters’ thoughts, feelings, and private doings at will, often providing us with relevant information that the characters themselves are not privy to. Both narrators have an engaging, world-weary style, but an oddly formal one that feels more rooted in the mid-twentieth century than the mid-twenty-first. Perhaps this is the influence of Joseph Mitchell, who is invoked in that Author’s Note, in a long tongue-in-cheek list of authors whom Salvo claims to have plagiarized. (Several works by Kurt Vonnegut are also listed, but while Vonnegut’s literary DNA is readily discernible in the topsy-turvy, brutal universe of Blue Rhinoceros, he does not seem to have been a major influence on Salvo’s writing style.)
Both narrators have similar faults, too. Whether writing as Entrecarceles or as himself, Salvo often indulges a writerly pleasure in his own flights of rhetoric. He is fond of turning a fine phrase—perhaps a little too fond, at times—and prone to pontificating, especially when waxing philosophical about ethical matters and the underlying motivations and circumstances that lead people to do terrible things. But to be fair, we were forewarned about this sermonizing tendency in Salvo’s introduction, and if this is a flaw, it is a Melvillian one, a fundamental characteristic of the novel that would be difficult to excise without diminishing the greatness of the whole. And Salvo has a mellifluous voice, so it’s easy to forgive him for occasionally taking one too many solos.
What does allow us to identify which narrator we are dealing with is that both Salvo and Entrecarceles are characters in themselves, so we are clued in when, for example, Thomas mentions an interview or encounter taking place in the present time, or when Salvo, breaks the fourth wall by (for example) disclosing why he, the author, has assigned certain fates to certain characters. But because their voices are so similar, it often takes us a while to figure out who is in the driver’s seat. A kind of uncentered, stereoscopic effect emerges from this narrative approach, an effect entirely appropriate to a story which is already unsettled by design, where all versions of events are provisional, fragmented, prone to revision and tainted by falsehood, shifting under our feet like a Florida sinkhole. This is, after all, a novel willing to take on the unsettling question: Why would someone kill the last living blue rhinoceros? Why would someone do such a terrible thing? Maybe, as Bruce Springsteen put it, there’s just a meanness in this world. But I suspect that Oscar Louder, the exacting insurance adjuster, would answer this question with a question: Cui bono?
Tyler C. Gore’s essays, stories, and reviews have appeared in many of the fine, high-quality journals preferred by discerning readers like you. He is the author of My Life of Crime: Essays and Other Entertainments (Sagging Meniscus, 2022), a delightful book that you should definitely buy. He lives, as he dreams—in Brooklyn.