Me Cheeta by James Lever
This year’s oddball choice on the Booker longlist is a satire on Hollywood as seen through the eyes of Tarzan’s long-lived chimp companion. When it was published last autumn as an autobiography, the book had Cheeta listed as its writer, but it didn’t take long for the real author to be uncovered; James Lever, a book editor, has his name on the paperback.
Cheeta, now aged 76, looks back on his life. In the first section, he tells us how he and many other animals were ‘rescued’ from the jungle and ‘rehabilitated’ by humans, how he was selected to go to Hollywood where he became ‘part of the family’ belonging to L.B.Mayer. There, Cheeta met the love of his life, Tarzan in the sublime form of Johnny Weissmuller, and Johnny too got a pal who would always be there for him. Cheeta didn’t get always get on with Jane however – Maureen O’Sullivan found ‘the ape-talk a trifle wearying‘. Johnny’s reply, ‘Jane angry. Jane need smack on rear end.’
Ere long Cheeta is mixing with all the stars and indulging in all the vices – smoking, drinking, sniffing cocaine from starlets’ cleavages and indulging in high jinks with Douglas Fairbanks and David ‘Niv’ Niven. There were those he didn’t get on with too, particularly Charlie Chaplin who had to upstage everyone, (he got his own back in spectacular fashion with members of Charlie’s garden menagerie). Johnny always stuck up for Cheeta though. Esther Williams was another, but we don’t know the details as that chapter was ‘removed on legal advice’!
Eventually the films got worse, Cheeta’s role was diminished and the Tarzan brand faded. In the last section of the book, Cheeta has retired to a sanctuary where he paints and dreams. Very clever and often scabrously funny, this spoof plays long and hard with the facts of Hollywood’s golden age – after all, its targets are dead.
Young Cheeta’s innocent belief that the humans had his best interests at heart was neatly handled, as was the older Cheeta’s world-weary cynicism about the system that had made him, but spat him back out when he was no longer useful, his comeback having flopped.
Luckily, I grew up watching all the black and white movies on Saturday afternoons when my Dad and brother went off to the footie, so I was familiar with all Cheeta’s co-stars. Reading it without this grounding may prove tedious though, for at 320 pages, it is too long by about a quarter. It shouldn’t make it onto the Booker shortlist, but it has been a great choice to stimulate discussion and successfully raise the media profile of the prize. I found it to be in parts, hilarious and truly fascinating, also a little repetitive, but above all it was a really interesting exercise in satire and good fun.
Much has been written about Me Cheeta elsewhere: – other interesting reviews on Just Williams Luck, Kevin from Canada, Shelf Love; – the article that outed James Lever from the Sunday Times back in October last year here; – and finally, more about the original Cheeta(s) – yes there were more than one here.