Sunday, 4 December 2011

Sex, drugs and bananas

Cheeta the chimpanzee, best known as Tarzan’s sidekick, retired in Palm Springs where he spends his time painting. At 76 years of age (the oldest living chimp), he decides to write his memoirs, Me Cheeta, of his childhood in Africa before his capture in 1932, his rehabilitation in America, his career in the golden age of Hollywood, and his retirement to an animal sanctuary.  
The first novel written by James Lever, Me Cheeta (2009) is of course a fictional account of this time in Hollywood as seen through the eyes of an acting chimp.  It appeared on the Man Booker Prize long list and was hailed as a great satire of the gossipy Hollywood memoirs written by so many has-beens/never-was celebrities. As a fan of old Hollywood films and folklore, and a lover of quick-witted, biting satire, I approached Me Cheeta with an open mind, prepared to buy into the pretense that it was written by an elderly primate.

The novel was hit and miss for me. While it is undoubtedly very clever, I was always conscious of its cleverness – reading a page or a paragraph and thinking ‘ah, very witty’ or ‘wasn’t that ingenious’.

When Cheeta moves on to Hollywood and gets his big break in the Tarzan movies, there are some genuinely hilarious moments involving old Hollywood stars. Cheeta name-drops many in his alcohol-fuelled adventures, including: David Niven, Douglas Fairbanks, Marlene Dietrich, Errol Flynn, Scott Fitzgerald, Gary Cooper, Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Humphrey Bogart, Rex Harrison, Lana Turner, Peter Lorre, Fred MacMurray, Red Skeleton and John Huston. Through Cheeta, we learn about their sexual peccadillos, addictions, hang-ups, and failures. Much of this is slanderous (Chapter 8 was removed for legal reasons) and laugh-out-loud funny.  I loved the subtle way he tosses names into his descriptions. For example, Cheeta handled a mousetrap “as gently as Laurence Olivier handled the madness and depression of Vivian Leigh”. Readers will get more from this if they are familiar with this period in Hollywood.

Cheeta’s most significant relationship was with Johnny Weissmueller, the former Olympic swimmer turned Tarzan. Cheeta genuinely loved Johnny. Through Cheeta’s eyes we see Johnny wanting to be more than just Tarzan but being restrained by the studios and witness his failed romances including to the volatile Lupe Velez.  But Cheeta is not a loveable monkey. He had an ongoing rivalry with Maureen O’Sullivan, who played Jane. He hated Mickey Rooney. He was prone to act out his anger (including violating Chaplin’s bonobos) and his jealousy caused him to hasten the end of Johnny Weissmueller’s marriages.

Along the way there are messages about the ethical treatment of animals in film, including Jane Goodall’s ‘No Reel Apes’ campaign. Cheeta retires to a Palm Springs sanctuary where he paints and sells his work. Having finished work on the Tarzan films in the 1940s, Cheeta’s retirement is long and uneventful. This makes the last part of the book boring and uneventful, after the promise of the earlier chapters. I wonder why Lever didn’t write it as if the memoirs were drafted earlier, say in the 1950s, so as to avoid 60 years of boring retirement.

Of course there was no one Cheeta. Several chimps and costumed humans played the part on the Tarzan films. The other characters are real, but how much of what happened in Me Cheeta was true I do not know. What I do know is that Me Cheeta is an interesting novel, an original idea, executed in a clever yet uneven way. After a strong start, the book failed to hold my attention.