November 22: “The Rhino in the Barn” by Kevin McIlvoy

S’up, Story366! I hope you’re having a good Thanksgiving Tuesday. By now, you’ve either bought your turkey or you’re perhaps waiting too long, as those fat bastards have to thaw, as you can’t just throw them in the oven frozen. I’ve done that with hamburgers—Mom Czyzniejewski always has a shelf full of frozen patties in baggies in the freezer—but it doesn’t work for a legged 3-D ellipse that’s made of meat and Stove Top. So, today’s preamble is a warning: If you don’t have your turkey yet, get your ass to the Aldi/Kroger/Piggly Wiggly/Food Lion/Ralph’s/Jewel/HyVee/Foodtown ASAP, clear a space on the countertop, and crank that thermostat up to the high eighties.

Amidst all the defrosting, I also got a chance to read from Kevin McIlvoy‘s collection The Complete History of New Mexico, out from Graywolf. I’ve read McIlvoy’s stories in magazines throughout the years and know him as the longtime editor of Puerto del Sol, so I had an idea of what I was getting into. I read several pieces from The Complete History of New Mexico, including the title story, which is a three-part novella, spread across the collection, all three pieces in the form of a history paper turned in by a kid living in New Mexico, all sporting the title “The Complete History of New Mexico.” All include a cover sheet with the teacher’s comments and her grade, along with an outline, an intro, several narrative pages, some maps and photos, and a conclusion. I liked those pieces—clever, tragic, and funny all at the same time—but also liked the stories in-between. One of those stories is called “The Rhino in the Barn” so tonight I’ll write about it.

To note, one of the aspects of this story that attracts me to it has to do with a saying I use in my fiction classes, something to the tune of “the rhino charging through downtown.” This refers to an author’s need for something to happen in their story, something interesting, their own characters unable to create readable plot on their own. When stories are going nowhere, they should bring in an outside element, like a natural disaster or a stranger coming to town; the rhino charging through downtown is the ultimate embellishment of that, as if boring characters in a boring story will be energized by a rhinoceros suddenly running amok in a city, knocking over fruit carts, crashing through plate glass windows, and goring unsuspecting pedestrians. The characters would then have to deal with the rhino, with the destruction, and just maybe, their personalities would be revealed as they handle the drama and the trauma. A rhino charging through downtown.

McIlvoy’s not doing that in “The Rhino in the Barn,” but a rhino sure does show up and sure does have an exceptionally large impact on the story. The piece is about this family living in Illinois, outside St. Louis, and is narrated by one of two sons in the family. The father of this family is a carpenter/fix-it guy who comes across the art of working with fiberglass, a skill he uses to make large animal figures and selling them to local businesses for use as attention-getting signs. It seems like business is booming, as on the weekends, the family drives around the region to look at Dad’s handiwork, which is quite popular. The feather in the dad’s cap is an enormous rhino that he’s building for an Esso gas station in St. Louis, a rhino that’s ten times larger than an actual rhino. The dad’s building it out on the family farm outside the house, where it looms over the family and the boys try to name it and decide what color to paint it (the Esso owner simply wants rhino-color, which is important for various reasons).

The hitch in the story is that the mom in this family has TB and spends a lot of time in a sanatorium, at first getting out for weekends, and later, not so much. The kids have to deal with her being gone, they have to work the farm (Mom used to grow horseradishes, which don’t exactly light up the futures market), and dad has to reckon with the fact that the rhino is too big to transport and much too big to sit on the gas station’s roof without caving it in. So, metaphorically, it seems like this rhino is trying to do a lot of work, though I’m not pinpointing what that is, not exactly, not yet.

Seemingly stuck with this giant fiberglass rhino, the family does what any sane family does and construct a barn around the rhino. It’s a massive barn, one that completely encompasses the beast, a special addition built to contain its head and horns. Eventually, that barn holds much more than the rhino, again begging to be a metaphor. You’ll have to read the story for yourself to find out what happens, but overall, McIlvoy does his characters, this premise, right, providing an effective ending for such an elaborate conceit, such a huge elephant in the room (sorry, I couldn’t resist that last last line).

Overall, Kevin McIlvoy puts a lot of talent on display in The Complete History of New Mexico, writing a lot about average Americans and how they deal with the everyday tragedies that life deals them. McIlvoy has real compassion for the characters he creates and makes us feel the same way, quite an accomplishment, and sometimes in just four or five pages. I’ve always like McIlvoy’s stories. Now, I like a few more.