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?