Written by on September 22, 2009

Me Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood

34395646.JPGIt didn’t make the shortlist, but Me Cheeta made quite a stir when it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction earlier this year. Speculation swirled about the book’s ghostwriter (Will Self? Martin Amis?), but it turned out to be James Lever, who had never had a novel published before.

Ben Hoyle, writing for the Times Online, says “According to Ion Trewin, the literary director of the prize, the judges loved it so much that they took time out of their nomination meeting to read favourite lines to each other.” I found myself doing the same thing; there are passages that are scathingly hilarious, especially when you picture them coming out of the rubbery lips of a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking, knuckle-walking chimp. Lever has created a complex voice for Cheeta: at once sardonic, world-weary, and falsely modest as only a Hollywood star can be. He loves his co-star, Johnny Weissmuller, and ruefully describes Johnny’s matrimonial misadventures with the indulgent voice of a wiser big brother. His long-simmering feud with Maureen O’Sullivan and the jealous disdain he feels for Johnny’s other female co-stars make for some of the funniest lines. Here, he describes an arrangement where MGM loans Johnny out at $5000 a week to Billy Rose of the Aquacade:

So twice a day, seven days a week, four hundred miles away, amid forty-foot fountains and cascading “aqua-curtains,” he and seventy-two Aquabelles, the fifty-strong Fred Waring Glee Club Chorus, various Olympians, comedy divers, English Channel-swimmers, breath-holders and that inexcusable slanderess and ingrate Esther Williams, the “Million-dollar Mermaid” (or the “Two-bit Dugong,” as I know her) all dedicated themselves to the praise of water…

But he doesn’t limit his disdain to females. Here Cheeta cuts loose on men, after describing a prank where (using hidden dwarfs operating the gas and brake pedals) Weissmuller and David Niven pretend to be driven around by Cheeta in Marlene Dietrich’s boat-like car, just to impress some girls from Hollywood High:

In fact, unless I specifically inform you otherwise, every single action performed by an adult human male in this memoir can be thought of as an attempt to attract the attention of some sexually receptive females. “Impressing the ladies is an arduous task,” as the narrator’s always saying on Animal Planet, with that little chuckle I’ve come to dread when sex turns up. “Perhaps no creature has a more elaborate courtship display than the bower bird.” No creature? That’s a joke, right? You can’t think of one? Clue: as part of its elaborate courtship displays this species has invented telephones, moving pictures, cars, music, money, organized warfare, tiger-skin rugs, alcohol, mood lighting, speedboats, mink coats, cities and poetry. So, please, no sniggering at the bower birds’ attempts to get laid.

Hidden in the knuckle-walking and excrement-throwing, though, is a message on the troubled relationship between apes and humans, and between humans and animals in general. Throughout the book, Cheeta refers to an organization called “No Reel Apes,” which does really exist. Read what Jane Goodall has to say about it here.

As it turned out, the 76-year-old chimp living in retirement who was thought to be Cheeta turned out to be a fraud: he was born after the Weissmuller films were made. So the whole premise that caused a publisher to suggest that Lever write this book was a false one. I’m glad the error wasn’t discovered before he finished this hilarious and yet strangely moving book.

Read more on new fiction, new memoir, and prizes and awards.

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