This is that rarity, a work of genius that's also accessible in all the right ways: hilarious, touching, cutting, thought-provoking and beautifully written, breathtakingly so at times. But fear not: the romance is constantly sauced with the simian hero's outrageous, turd-slinging wise-cracks and put-downs. Cheeta speaks in a lovely blend of street wisdom and naïve poetry that makes you want to listen to him for much longer than the book lasts. And his racy, piquant subject matter is utterly intriguing!
The brilliance here lies in several layers, beginning with the very idea of a celebrity chimp telling his tale in a mind-boggling combination of natural history (Cheeta's self-awareness leads to many "you'll know this from National Geographic" type references) and "urban jungle" adventure. Add in the period glamour of Hollywood and Manhattan, amongst others, for further seduction. Then there's the constant insider scandal and sly digs at various cinematic egos: if you're looking for scurrilous iconoclasm, just seek out Rooney and Chaplin wherever they appear. The same subtlety informs the dissection of "swimming star" Esther Williams, done in part by having the chapter on her "removed on legal advice" but with frequent sarcastic sneers elsewhere and some nudging clues in the index - yes, even the index is worth reading! And watch out for the deflations of some more contemporary posturers towards the end, during Cheeta's "Oscar acceptance" sequence - scalpel-sharp stuff.
The heart of the book, though, is the enduring friendship with cinema's greatest Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, here portrayed with an ultimate poignancy that is genuinely heart-wrenching. Their earlier exploits constitute a most original "romance," the bond between a bright animal and a child-like man (initially idolised but increasingly worn down and out by his fellow humans, especially his wives) very affectingly realised. It's particularly touching during their separations, when time, especially for Cheeta, becomes a blank despair completely opposite to the "dreams" (films) the pair create when they're together; the ape's innocence of the man's oblivion during these periods is truly poignant.
The sleazy "reunion" eventually orchestrated by a trashy magazine is all the more distressing in this regard. Whilst the lowest aspects of it go thankfully over the innocent heads of the pair, the once-godlike Weissmuller's decrepitude and Cheeta's desperation for his company and urge to "rescue" the human from exploitation tug our heart-strings in several directions and raise all sorts of thoughts about captivity, dependence and consciousness. The whole thing can be read, in fact, as a love story between man and chimp, with this book the latter's celebration of, and love-letter to, a human he sees as the best of his species and whom he worshipfully considers to be his son (ape-rescued and reared), father (jungle-king, protector) and brother ("keeper" and friend) - a moving and thought-provoking trinity.
It must be said, though, that the imaginative empathy of the "ghost writer" goes beyond anthropomorphism and achieves plausibility without liberties, emotion without sentiment: descriptions of the jungle life "of infanticide and cannibalism" from which his beloved humans rescue Cheeta are lyrical, realistic, violent, sad and laugh-out-loud comical. And when he reaches America it gets even better! The early escape (orchestrated by the macaques) from a Manhattan animal dealer (Cheeta thinks of it as "rehab") into the exotic setting of Depression-ridden New York leads to one of the funniest sequences I've read for ages - and Kong makes an "appearance" you won't forget!
This is such an original premise that you might fear for its actual fulfilment: how could anyone sustain this level of invention! But the execution is so wonderful that Cheeta becomes, and remains, completely engaging, whilst his adventures and reminiscences more than fulfil the promise of the book's concept - indeed, they transcend it. The mischievous suggestion that Cheeta has "accidentally" typed all this out (in the manner of those infinite Shakespearian monkeys and with appropriate Shakespeare references around the text) is typical of the sly wit at work here.
Our hero is, of course, affectionate and scathing in turns on human nature; and he tells us, in the most entertaining way, what is to be respected and despised in our behaviour, along with what we can learn from our primate cousins. Loving, forgiving and always fascinating, Cheeta's unique story gives us many deep insights into our own lives - and has us frequently weeping with laughter as he does it. This is not to diminish the beautifully-imagined primate psychology; indeed, I'm amazed at how well such profound ideas as Cheeta's non-concept of death, his oblique knowledge of animal cruelty and his ultimately, well, existential take on it all sit alongside the barbs and ironies.
If you love films, animals, movie stars, gossip, satire, scandal and, above all, inspired writing, you will take this marvellous book and its innocent, wise, witty, perceptive and irreverent author straight to your heart. And this is right at the top of my gift list for the humans I care about: I can't imagine a better compliment to anyone's intelligence, sense of humour and literary taste. Absolutely fantastic!