A chimp in a human world

A Beautiful Truth. Colin McAdam. Soho. 336 pages. $25.
A Beautiful Truth. Colin McAdam. Soho. 336 pages. $25.

The third novel by Colin McAdam, the Canadian author of Some Great Thing and Fall, would seem unlikely to trigger searing emotion followed by searching introspection. The story springs from propositions known to be factually accurate: Genetic and behavioral similarities between humans and other great apes, such as chimpanzees, outnumber differences; an instinctive need for companionship governs both our and their lives; and divergent expressions of this common need stem from differing methods of socialization. Yet A Beautiful Truth manages to parlay long established and widely disseminated scientific and anthropological facts into gripping and thought-provoking fiction.

In 1972, Walt Ribke of Vermont reads an article in Life magazine about primatologists in Oklahoma teaching sign language to chimpanzees. (This real-life article brought short-lived fame to a chimpanzee named Lucy). Walt is inspired to procure infant male chimp Looee from West Africa for his infertile, despondent wife Judy. Alongside this portrayal of an unconventional family in rural Vermont, McAdam depicts the (fictitious) Girdish Institute near Jacksonville, Fla., where primatologists study chimpanzee behavior. An omniscient narrator inhabits the minds of most characters, including Looee and the Girdish employees and chimps.

McAdam, who clearly conducted much research for this book — the Girdish chapters include academic asides, while Looee’s behavior seems partly based on Lucy’s — concedes that the mental capacity of a chimp is more limited than that of a human. Judy "couldn’t grow towards adult communion with [Looee] or share ideas as others did with normal children," McAdam writes. "But she was not as lonely as she would have been if she had never met him."

The author handles Looee’s post-childhood phase with tremendous sensitivity and doesn’t flinch from the uncomfortable subject of his sexual maturation. Growing up around humans with no chimpanzees around, Looee feels attracted to women. He has no sexual outlet other than masturbation.

In a mark of self-assuredness, McAdam refrains from downplaying chimps’ occasional violence. Following a particularly shocking and ferocious event, Looee is trundled off to Girdish. Unbeknown to Judy and Walter, Girdish is now focused on HIV-related biomedical experimentation, leasing out chimps to pharmaceutical companies. The institute is now "a perverse abbatoir where the animals [are] efficiently denied their death." Looee’s subjection to monstrous torture as he pines for his human parents and his old life will overwhelm the most stouthearted of readers.

Such material could have felt slightly manipulative. Yet the author adds another dimension to his story when, many years after Looee’s arrival, Girdish ceases biomedical testing. The institute places Looee in its jungle-like enclosure, among chimps that haven’t undergone experimentation. He recovers somewhat, though his "better health and less constant fear of pain have made more space in his days for remembering."

McAdam seems determined to impart the notion that Looee’s life among the semi-wild chimps at Girdish, which resembles the environment he was born into in Africa, isn’t a reversion to a state less advanced than what he experienced with Judy and Walt. Indeed, A Beautiful Truth is not Flowers for Algernon with a chimpanzee. Looee’s new world simply differs from his older one. And he must familiarize himself with the chimps’ ways. "Some of their customs will be forever foreign to him," McAdam writes. However, in a bittersweet twist to this depressing but wise and edifying tale, a battered Looee reattains a semblance of happiness.

Rayyan Al Shawaf is a writer in Lebanon.

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

 <span class="cutline_leadin">STONE MATTRESS: </span>Nine Tales. Margaret Atwood. Nan A. Talese. Doubleday. 288 pages. $25.95.


    Past looms large in new stories from Margaret Atwood

    In Margaret Atwood’s new collection, the past looms large for aging protagonists, but sympathy and regret abound, too.

  • What are you reading now?

    “I just finished Claire DeWitt and The City of the Dead by Sara Gran, which I love, love, loved. It’s a mystery set in New Orleans shortly after the storm and solved by girl detective, Claire DeWitt, who applies her special method of detection which is pretty much based on yoga and Buddhism combined with the altered mind states of drugs, drink, dreams and growing up in Brooklyn.”

 <span class="cutline_leadin">WHAT STAYS IN VEGAS:</span> The World of Personal Data — Lifeblood of Big Business C — and the End of Privacy as We Know It. Adam Tanner. PublicAffairs. 316 pages. $27.99.


    ‘What Stays in Vegas’ examines data packaging and the end of privacy

    Journalist explains how data packaging makes American companies the biggest threat to privacy.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category