This chimp memoir is no chump story
After a series of preposterous faux memoirs that have practically destroyed the genre's credibility, we're now expected to believe that an inarticulate chimp old enough to have appeared in the earliest Tarzan movies has at last written his autobiography - one in which he describes himself "intently watching the skull of the sun creep toward the merciful cirrostratus yardarm in the Mexican sky."
Oh, please. Cheeta was a boozer alright, but the truth is he never felt the need to wait for a decent hour before knocking back the day's first banana daiquiri. I never even saw him without a glass in his hand. It's not PC to say it, but that's just how chimps are. I knew Cheeta, OK? Cheeta was a friend of mine. And to the chimp pretending to be the author of this book I can only say, you're no Cheeta!
The impostor has nonetheless made a monkey of credulous news organizations for years. The claim was that this ancient silver-screen idol, after a brief comeback in "Doctor Dolittle" with that vicious ham Rex Harrison, has been living in Palm Springs, Calif., as the world's oldest known primate. And there was that claim that he's now an abstract painter.
All it takes is a little Googling (on the Internet, nobody knows you're a horse) to prove that this is all, well, horsefeathers. The
Worse yet, it now emerges that "Me, Cheeta" is entirely a profit-seeking fiction based on the life of this earlier profit-seeking fiction, only written by a fiendishly talented Briton named James Lever. In effect, Cheeta's impersonator has an impersonator! As a memoir, then, the book is a clever ruse, and never mind the index and the chapter supposedly "removed on legal advice."
But before we consign this tawdry Cheeta impersonator to the same publishing dustbin as James Frey, Margaret Seltzer, and Herman Rosenblat, we must ask ourselves a question: Why read the book as fact? Have we learned nothing from Jacques Lacan? Read it as the work of fiction that it is - that every memoir, unfortunately, must ultimately be - and then you have a horse of a different color, as Alan Young (that's Wi -i-i-i-i-l-bur to you) so often liked to say.
If the book bears the stigma of deception as a memoir, as a novel it passes a much more serious test of veracity, capturing with admirable complexity its subject's admittedly twisted psyche (especially his bitter jealousy toward Charlie Chaplin), as well as his boozy and oversexed Hollywood milieu. In order to do so, the author has produced an outrageously funny and profane Tinseltown memoir: pitch-perfect, star-studded, score-settling and (if you'll forgive the careless species-ism) deliciously catty.
Only it differs from the usual Hollywood memoir in that the usual Hollywood memoirist isn't influenced by Vladimir Nabokov, Jack London, or Philip Larkin. Nor is he (or his ghostwriter) conscious of his own existential dilemma. For Lever's Cheeta knows that at some level Hollywood is no different from the jungle of his birth - except that, for animal actors, a box-office bomb could prove quite literally fatal. (Years of therapy have yet to erase my own deep anxiety about the glue factory.)
The tragedy is that Cheeta never got to tell his own story. Absent the ape's account, we'll have to content ourselves with Lever's. Like the Hollywood version of history, it's not strictly accurate. But it's an awful lot of fun.
Daniel Akst is a writer in New York's Hudson Valley.