Me Cheeta, by James Lever

Okay, the 2009 Man Booker jury got me on this one. I had actually heard of the book when the longlist was announced. Will Rycroft at Just William’s Luck had given it a generally positive review back in January — then again, Will knows and writes about film (which is what this satire is about) and he did playfully list the author as Cheeta. And I also recalled that a few months later the London Review of Books had a surprisingly upbeat take on it and Me Cheeta hardly seems like their kind of book. A quick internet scan on announcement day popped up the cover pictured here, featuring the eye-hiding ape and a collage of stars from the 30s and 40s — about as non-Booker as you can get and confirming my first impression that this was hardly a worthy choice.

Offsetting all this, however, was a disarming Guardian interview with author James Lever (aka Cheeta) that included the following quote:

“I hope Cheeta’s an OK book, but in my opinion a good book comes out once every few years. I’m bloody not calling my book a good book. It’s all right, you know.”

He goes on to say that if this book does win the Booker he is definitely hoping he gets the Nobel Prize for his next. With a sense of humor like that, it is hard to slag the guy. And since I did promise to try to read all 13 longlisted books, it hardly seemed right to ignore one on the assumption that it wasn’t worth the list because it was too easy to read.

Me Cheeta is sub-titled The Autobiography and it is written by Cheeta (officially Jiggs but U. S. immigration at Ellis Island always gets the name wrong; also often wrongly spelled Cheta or Chita in almost every published review due to the incompetent studio PR department) whose claim to fame, at least in his own eyes, was that he was Johnny Weissmuller’s vital co-star in 10 Tarzan movies between 1934 and 1947. While it is a satire on both Hollywood and the celebrity autobiography, the novel has a tender underbelly — Lever has a lot of love for both the subjects which he mocks even if he is aware of their failings.

He is also remarkably effective in setting the stage for his story. The first 90 pages are devoted to recounting Cheeta’s youth in the jungle, his capture, his trip to America and his first experience of New York (with obligatory references to King Kong). Long before the ape author gets to Hollywood, the human author has firmly established his intention to treat him and his story as compassionately as possible. The lengthy set-up also allows Lever to introduce a number of other conceits, such as Cheeta’s belief that he has been saved from sure death and destruction by humans who are intent on giving him the best life possible — as opposed to the idea that he has been introduced to animal abuse and slavery.

Warm-up done, by far the best part of the book is the second section, where Cheeta’s career serves mainly as an excuse to take dead aim at Hollywood and the inflated egos that rule it:

In all there were seven main Dream Factories, run by seven alpha males: Mayer, Warner, Goldwyn, Cohn, Zukor, Zanuck and Laemmle. These alphas were the kings of the town, but there were a number of other kings: a King of Hollywood (Gable), a King of the Silents (Fairbanks), a King of the Jungle (Johnny), and a Queen of Hollywood (Myrna Loy), a Queen of Warner’s (Kay Francis), a Queen of the World (Dietrich) and a Dragon Queen (Joan Crawford). There was also a Baron, a Duke, a First Lady of Hollywood, and rarer creatures — an Iron Butterfly, a Platinum Blonde, a Profane Angel, an Old Stoneface, a Love Goddess, a Great Profile, a Sweater Girl, an Oomph Girl, a Girl-with-the-wink.

Many of those named — and many others — are skewered in the pages that follow. I’m not even going to try to produce examples (Will’s review does and he knows the territory better than me) although Cheeta does have a particular hate for Mickey Rooney and Esther Williams. In true autobiography style, Me Cheeta features a 10-page, two-column, small-type index that dutifully catalogues all of the references.

While all this is happening (and even for a non-movie fan like myself it has its share of laughs), a sub-theme is developing — Cheeta’s unrequited love for Johnny. It starts with an aversion to his female co-stars, especially Maureen O’Sullivan, whom the ape feels are competing with him for Johnny’s attention. And it extends eventually to Johnny’s wives (he had six). And in its own way, it is a touching and convincing part of the story.

The problem with all this is that Hollywood is pretty thin so the satire starts to wear and get rather repetitive. And the Cheeta-in-love-with-Johnny story line has the same weakness. Amusement turns to ennui turns to annoyance — and with half the book still to go, it is not cheerful to think what will come next.

Worse yet, Cheeta’s film career lasted only until 1947 and the “autobiography” is written in 2009 and so there are 62 years to fill in. (If you didn’t know, Cheeta is for real and is also an artist — a charming touch to the “autobiography” are two sections of photos). A couple of decades of that he spent in a touring animal sideshow (“stage work” he calls it); for the last few decades he has llived at what he calls The Sanctuary, known to the rest of the world as No Reel Apes, where sales of his art are the main source of revenue. Still worse, Lever starts to take the whole gag seriously and the latter part of the book comes dangerously close to being a dreadful polemic on how humanity treats animals and the planet in general. Cheeta believing his press clippings is one thing, but those themes just don’t stand up to the quality of the better parts of the book.

There is a part of me that wants to crap on the jury for denying a “real” author a place on the longlist by including this book — and I am going to resist that. It is definitely unconventional and parts of it are quite good, a cheerful romp. And Lever’s self-effacing attitude is testimony enough that such criticism would be unduly churlish. With 13 choices to make, I’ll allow the jury a fun one. Both barrels will be loaded, however, if they move this mildly entertaining diversion to the shortlist.

A final note. Both Me Cheeta and Hillary Mantel’s 650-page Tudor doorstopper Wolf Hall are published by Fourth Estate, which surely gives that publisher ownership of the poles of this year’s Booker choices. I’m 200 pages into Wolf Hall as I write this — is it possible that it is a massive satire and I have been missing the point completely so far?

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20 Responses to “Me Cheeta, by James Lever”

  1. John Self Says:

    It did occur to me that the Man Booker Dozen is just that – twelve books they think are the best of the year, and one bonus title picked for fun and/or controversy. That would apply to last year also, with Child 44.

    [Will Rycroft] did playfully list the author as Cheeta

    Not necessarily playfully, as the book was published in hardback in the UK as simply Me Cheeta: the Autobiography with no mention on cover or (as far as I am aware) copyright page of the real author. Lever only came out of the chimp closet with the paperback.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I think Will had scoped that out, whatever the hardcover might have said (or he amended his review later or he was reviewing the paperback) — his author reference at the top of his review is “by …erm, Cheeta” and he appended the following at the end of the review:

    (And for those of you wondering who the real author is (bless you if you believed it might really be just him and a typewriter) this insider tale of LA excess comes from James Lever, Oxford-educated son of a High Court judge.)

    Now, it is definiitely true that Lever’s High Court heritage has been overlooked. And I am not really sure how that plays out, but will think about it.

    And I agree completely on the famous Booker Dozen — at least in the last two years, book 13 has perhaps been somewhat off the wall.

  3. Colette Jones Says:

    I like the book 13 theory, but for me, this year, it is Not Untrue and Not Unkind.

  4. P.S. I Love You Says:

    Interesting theories on the emerging patterns of the Booker longlist. I too can see where Colette is coming from when she says that the thirteenth book is ‘Not Untrue and Not Unkind’. I just can’t believe all the positive feedback that it has gotten from the likes of Jospeh O’Neill and Anne Enright. O’Neill described it as an ‘authoratative’ novel which actually makes me laugh I’m ashamed to say. Enright calls it ‘the best first novel’ from any author that she has ever read. I can’t help but think that these puffs helped the novel onto the Booker longlist.

    Actually, since I am now in possession of all thirteen novels (for the second year in a row), I can’t help but think of some other similarities that are emerging. Like for instance the novel with the best front cover. Last year it was Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Sea of Poppies'; this year its Simon Mawer’s ‘The Glass Room’. Both of which, incidentally, I have spent a long times simply cradling rather than reading. Another similarity is the Booker judges’ attraction to thrillers. Last year it was Child 44; this year its ‘Not Untrue and Not Unkind’. I haven’t actually seen O’Loughlin’s novel described as a thriller but its certainly a description that I am willing to give it.

    I can think of some other similarities in the Booker longlists of recent years too but these might be scraping the barrel somewhat. Briefly, though: the ratio of Irish writers to English writers and the size of the novels (i.e. the presence of two 600+ page novels).

  5. deucekindred Says:

    Both barrels will be loaded, however, if they move this mildly entertaining diversion to the shortlist.

    Actually now I’m HOPING that this one will find it’s way in the shortlist. I’ll have a long loud laugh.

    I have read it though and I doubt it.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    deucekindred: Touche for you. Of course, both barrels would (will?) probably explode in a backfire to the face of the blogger.
    Collette: I’d certainly have this one ahead of Not Untrue & Not Unkind in my rankings, but I think we would agree that John meant Book 13 as “unconventional” book as opposed to a not very good/bad book. I am glad I read this book.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sorry P.S. I Love You, your comment got stacked in a queue.

    I agree with you about the blurbs on O’Loughlin’s novel, not so much on how they influenced the jury (perhaps they did) but on how they might mislead buyers. Incidentally, it is interesting how little attention the book is attracting from the conventional press given that it is longlisted — I keep looking for a review from someone who does like the book and haven’t found one.

    And while I agree with your evaluation of The Glass Room as best cover, it wins the contest only by a slim nod over The Quickening Maze. And for cuddling purposes, I would have to say Foulds book is better — one of the things I really did like about it was that its mildly unconventional shape (it is just a tad taller and less wider than most books) did give it a distinctive feel in the reading.

    It does seem that every Booker longlist must have at least two “big” books (I’d add The Little Stranger in as a third this year). Another subcategory is books from “big” authors (Coetzee, Trevor, Toibin). First novels (three this year) and then “in-between” authors. The category that is empty this year (except for Coetzee), and usually it is a strong one, is the “outside the U.K.” group. And I will be adopting John Self’s Book 13 concept — I can understand where Colette is coming from but still feel Me Cheeta is this year’s Book 13, the idea being that it is different, not necessarily bad.

  8. deucekindred Says:

    I would also say that every now and then that 13th book triumphs. Did anyone expect Vernon God Little to win?

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Right on, deucekindred. I can sort of understand it — when the jury has to read 130+ novels and most of them fall into one of a handful of categories, something different would be welcome. That didn’t work for me with Child 44 last year, but Me Cheeta (and Vernon God Little, which I quite liked) would fit that bill. A good argument for the Book 13 category to exist.

  10. P.S. I Love You Says:

    Maybe I am being a little over-zealous with my attack at the Booker judges on how ‘Not Untrue & Not Unkind’ made the longlist. It seems to me, though, that in deciding the longlist, the judges haven’t been doing what they should be doing. That is: deciding on thirteen titles which need further consideration before deciding which one of those is the best novel of the year. In other words, I think the judges add books to the longlist which they know have no chance of winning. In my opinion, they shouldn’t be in this mind-frame. It has been suggested elsewhere that this year’s shortlist has already been decided by the judges and I would go along with that. As I understand it, filling in the remaining spaces to get to a ‘balanced’ or ‘respectable’ longlist not only goes against what the Booker prize should be about but also against the current rules as prescribed on the Man Booker website.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I understand and accept your point but do think there is a countervailing argument. If you are a judge and have read 130 books and know that one of four will be your final choice, the other nine do become “filler”. That may not be right, but it seems to me it may be a fact. Now, if you happen to be a judge that likes one of those other nine, you know that you are going to have to come up with some good arguments to move your favorite up the list. Those books don’t necessarily have no chance of winning, but they are longshots. So while I can accept that the jury easily arrived at six books for the longlist (which is what Ion said), I don’t think those six are necessarily the shortlist — those who like another book just know they have to make a good argument. I suspect that both The White Tiger and Vernon God Little were books in exactly that position. Then again, maybe I am just being too kind to the jury.

    And I cannot dispute your original premise: I have no idea how Not Untrue & Not Unkind acquired any support. But it obviously did.

    The Guardian is running a Not the Booker contest and has come up with a shortlist: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/aug/24/not-booker-prize-shortlist . I haven’t read any of the six but have read reviews and opinions on four. I would have to say that I prefer the Official Booker list.

  12. tolmsted Says:

    I’m so glad you reviewed this book – I had mixed feelings about whether or not to read it. Giving the Booker judges the benefit of the doubt, I had thought that perhaps it would be one of those quirky books that surprise you by being better than what they initially present (Life of Pi being an example of that in my opinion). I think for now I’ll put it on hold.

    I noticed your comment “I’m 200 pages into Wolf Hall as I write this — is it possible that it is a massive satire and I have been missing the point completely so far?” at the end of the post and saw nobody questioned it. Not to be off topic, but that is a book I’m definitely looking forward to reading and was wondering what you meant by satire (it’s my first book by Hilary Mantel)? I did a preview read of the first few chapters and thought the writing was very good. Did you not? or do you feel she failed on the plot?

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I meant my reference to Wolf Hall as a (not successful, obviously) joke — it is definitely not a satire. I am having a lot of trouble with it. While it is certainly well-written, it is incredibly detailed and slow and I have yet to find a character or story line that engages me. I will be trying again this afternoon and am determined to finish it.

  14. William Rycroft Says:

    Hi Kevin. Just to confirm that I read the uncredited hardback and came across the article ‘outing’ James Leever as the real author at the same time. Like you I found the book a bit long and was genuinely surprised to see it on the longlist for the Booker. I’ll be even more surprised if it makes the shortlist. I’m sure James wouldn’t mind me saying that judging from that great quote you mentioned re. the Nobel Prize.

    On another tangent I have literally just finished The Glass Room which I was encouraged towards by your positive comments. You’ll have to wait a couple of days for me to get my own thoughts up but as a sneak preview I’ll let you know that it’s my favourite of the longlist titles so far. Thanks

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the Lever update, Will — I figured you had done some research somewhere.

    And I certainly look forward to your thoughts on The Glass Room. As far as I can tell, it seems to have fallen off the reader radar for the last few weeks, apparently awaiting a reprinting. It is still my favorite of the 13 and I now only have three to do.

  16. P.S. I Love You Says:

    Interesting thoughts, Kevin. At the risk of becoming tiresome I shall leave my Booker judges bashing for another place and another time.

    I too have had a look at the shortlist produced by the Guardian Book Blog followers and had similar feelings to yours. I don’t think ‘This is How’ deserved a place on this year’s shortlist, never mind the longlist. I have, however, made a note of Rana Dasgupta’s novel as I remember reading a positive review of it by John Self too.

    I think you are slightly ahead of me in reading this year’s Booker longlist. I finished ‘Wolf Hall’ today and thought it was fantastic. I’ve got four of the longlist still to read. One of which is Byatt’s ‘The Children’s Book’. Having already read your review of it, I am approaching it with some trepidation. On the other hand, I have had a skim through it and it feels like something that I will enjoy and find to be impressive.

    I have to say, though, I am glad that you are reviewing all of the novels as I always find your reviews very informative. I’m afraid I had to abandon reading ‘Me Cheeta’ because I wasn’t engaged even remotely by it and was beginning to get frustrated. Yours is the first review of the novel that I have read from someone who is not too familiar with Hollywood in the Golden Age. Reading your review, though, I think you still managed to take a lot more away from it than I did which is probably indicative of how better a reader you are than me. I too have made a pledge to myself to read all of the longlist but I’m afraid – especially in the case of ‘Me Cheeta’ – my aspiration might be left wanting. I might revisit this review after I have completed the other longlisted titles and try and stir up some enthusiasm to approach it again.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’m sure you can get through Me Cheeta — but saving another go at it until you have read the rest is probably a good idea.

    And you may well enjoy The Children’s Book more than I did, particularly since you liked Wolf Hall. They have some definite similarities in the way both explore periods of history (albeit separated by almost 400 years) in some depth. If you take to that history (which is outside my normal tastes, I admit) both books become much more enjoyable. I am now closing in on Page 400 of Wolf Hall and it is getting somewhat better.

    Thanks for your kind comments. I am enjoying reading the longlist (more so than last year’s I must say) even if a few are proving to be a challenge. And it wouldn’t be Booker season if we did not do a little bit of jury bashing — I can’t believe the judges don’t expect it. While there are books not on the longlist that would have been on mine, I can’t think of any that would have made my top three or four. I do think this year’s jury had a difficult task — even the books that I like have flows which I am quite willing to overlook, but can’t get too critical of readers who find them too much. It does make for interesting debate, which will only get better once the list gets shorter.

  18. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I can see how it might get on the Booker list, but I have to say it’s unlikely to make it on to my personal TBR list.

    Thanks as ever though Kevin, an informative and detailed review, more than enough to allow me to form a view.

    On the Guardian not the booker list, it seems there’s been issues of vote-rigging and so forth, though how serious I can’t say. I hope it works well, but as a project it’s not caught my imagination sadly.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Knowing your tastes, Max, I think you can safely give this one a miss — even as an effective satire, it doesn’t address areas that interest you.

    As for the Guardian contest, a fun idea got predictably hi-jacked (as most internet democratic contests do) with author’s friends “flooding” the vote. (Just like the Modern Library’s “people’s” choice of the 100 best of all time produced a top 10 of Ron Hubbard and Ayn Rand.) It is another project that you can safely avoid, I’d say.

  20. Max Cairnduff Says:

    What a shame. It’s a fun idea the Guardian thing, as I imagine was the Modern Library effort (in intent, anyway). It doesn’t surprise me that Randians and Hubbardians (I know the correct term, but it’s best not to use it for fear of attracting the same) spammed the Modern Library procedure, that’s how Hubbard won some SF awards too – rigged fan voting, but those are authors who attract a sort of cult-like following.

    The Guardian contest though, it’s just a little depressing for it to be distorted in this way. I’d hoped to be introduced to something interesting that I might have missed, not just to something where the author has unscrupulous or misguidedly loyal friends.

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