I’m not sure what it is with me and chimp books. I loved Me Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood, and have had Sara Gruen’s Ape House checked out for weeks now, even though I have yet to read her megahit Water for Elephants. And I’ve just finished Benjamin Hale’s wrist-breaker of a debut novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.
For anyone who’s met the gaze of a primate and felt unsettlingly seen, Bruno won’t be that big of a leap in imagination. Rescued from the zoo, he becomes part of a language study at the University of Chicago. Left alone for the first time in a cage at night when the primatologists go home for the evening, without the comfort of his family, he flies into a rage and shreds the blanket left for him, hurling food everywhere. But he soon makes friends with the developmentally disabled custodian who cleans the lab at night. Ironically, this is the first human he truly communicates with, not the scientists who drill him on words all day:
“Yiikikikikikiki eiiite eiiiiite!”
“Oo woo oo woo ooooooooo reagh reagh YEAAAAAGGGH!”
Then suddenly we were talking all at once! I don’t recall how the rest of the conversation went. We made such joyous noise!
This was perhaps the first completely reciprocal conversation I ever had with a human being. That first epic conversation with the great Haywood Finch, mildly retarded autistic night-shift janitor extraordinaire, was my truest introduction to human speech…
After he left I felt much better. Our nonsense conversation — or nonversation, if you will — had cured me of the rage demon that had previously entered me. Thus exorcised by our babbleoneous merrymaking, I gathered up the scraps and tatters and bits of fluff that I had in my panic made of my cage furnishings and fell asleep, my heavy-lidded slumber comporting me away inside myself to other worlds, my simple brain steeped in a warm bath of primitive dreams.
When he proves himself an unusually quick study, Lydia, the scientist working with him removes him from the lab environment, and takes him home with her to live. From that point on, there’s no turning back: Bruno has crossed the line dividing animal subject from pet/friend/self-imagined peer.
Hale has created a truly original character in Bruno. If he’d made him overly sweet, the book wouldn’t have been nearly as effective. Bruno has enough ego to convince us he’s as human as we are, but not so much that we don’t care what happens to him.
author photo courtesy of Twelve Publishers