Peter S. Beagle’s The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances

beagle-rhinoPeter S. Beagle lives and writes in a universe where anything can happen, and probably will. He is also one of those writers whose books should carry a warning label.

However, I can’t tell you what the warning label should say. Perhaps “Watch for Turns of Phrase.” Phrases do turn, in unexpected ways that just carry the reader along and not until later do we realize that was a very surprising thing to say. Or maybe “Danger! Perfectly Normal Bizarre Events.” They are very bizarre, and in Beagle’s hands are perfectly reasonable, almost expected, even though we have no idea what will happen next.

That said, it is only fair to point out that The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche is a survey course in Beagle. Included are stories and essays dating from as early as 1957 (“The Telephone Call,” which Beagle cites as the first story he ever got paid for, and which, as he quite rightly notes, reeks of Catcher in the Rye because, as he says, “in 1956 it seemed to me . . . that the only way to write real people was in the manner of J. D. Salinger.”), to pieces first published in this volume.

The stories are about many different things, but are all facets of one story. They are mostly about people who might be slightly unusual encountering situations that are radically abnormal and just dealing with them. “Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros” – which is really the title story – for example, is one of two about unicorns (if you believe the rhinoceros). Professor Gottesman is a philosophy teacher in a “middle-sized Midwestern American city, where he worked at a middle-sized university, teaching Comparative Philosophy in comparative contentment.” He meets the unicorn – er, rhinoceros – on a trip to the zoo with his visiting niece. The rhinoceros moves in, and they live contentedly ever after.

“Julie’s Unicorn” is a very different facet of The Story. Beagle very neatly drops us into the middle of the lives of Julie Tanikawa and Joe Farrell, two people who, one suspects, are very much like Beagle himself, who live in the Bay Area, and who are involved in the rescue of a unicorn from a medieval tapestry. The unicorn, tiny enough to fit in Joe’s pocket as they make their escape from a museum that sounds suspiciously like the Getty moved several hundred miles north, has its own ideas as to its proper disposition, in spite of being adopted by Julie’s cat, NMC (“Not My Cat”) and her six kittens.

In between, in this first section titled simply “Stories,” we are treated to a grand ball at which the guest of honor is the beautiful and innocent Lady Death; the story of Lila the Werewolf, the first appearance of Joe Farrell, who takes his girlfriend’s quirks more philosophically than he does her somewhat overbearing mother; and “The Naga,” a tale that comes to us from the ancient kingdom of Kambuja, beyond the exotic lands of the Indus, by way of Pliny the Elder.

The second section, “Early Stories,” includes “The Telephone Call,” mentioned above, and “My Daughter’s Name is Sarah,” a story that Beagle says in his introduction to this section was his first attempt to write from the point of view of someone who was much older than he. He pulled it off beautifully.

The “Essays,” the last section of the collection, reveal Beagle as something those who know only his fiction already knew he was: a thoughtful man, gentle, generous, passionate, one who never lost that little spark of wonder that we all start with.

The entire collection is suffused with that particular magic that seems to belong only to Peter S. Beagle, although there are others who own close variations, including Patricia A. McKillip, who contributed an Introduction (“Under the Zucchini”), and who remarks on something that gave rise to the first warning above: Beagle pulls poetry out of ridiculously sublime places, turns of phrase and juxtapositions of images that seem to come from some secret treasure house to which only he has the key. Even his introductions to the sections of this collection are worthy of note.

To anyone familiar with Beagle’s work, this collection is a must-have. For those who have yet to encounter him, perhaps this caveat is most appropriate: “Warning! Magic Ahead.”

(Tachyon Publications, 1997)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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