So, a chimp walks into a bar…
Literally. At least in Hale’s debut novel, whose protagonist is a chimp who, among other things, does not disdain a stiff drink or three, or even “a quadruple Scotch on the rocks, please,” the aftermath of which merits ejection from a Chicago bar and a dejected walk to the apehouse down the road. Bruno is a chimp of parts: He has a knack for painting, and, he grouses, “the research center generously provides me with paints, brushes, canvases, etc.” so that he can make a fortune for the place through the sales of what, after all, are a fairly scarce commodity—works of art produced by a simian other than Homo sapiens. Bruno plays backgammon, thinks philosophical thoughts, wanders the woods in Thoreauvian splendor and generally has a fairly good time of it, even though he technically is an inmate, confined on account of a rather spectacular crime he committed, one that Hale unveils only after many hundreds of pages. The notion of a learned nonhuman primate is not entirely novel; Aldous Huxley played with it in Ape and Essence, and another denizen of Chicago, Laurence Gonzales, recently did magic with it in his novel Lucy. But Hale’s Bruno is smart and inclined to archness and irony, and it’s a pleasure to follow his thoughts, darkling and otherwise, save for those all-too-frequent moments when Hale comes over all cute (“Cyrano de Bruno” indeed). The novel requires heaping suspensions of disbelief for those unaccustomed to the premise that a chimpanzee can write a love letter while thinking snotty thoughts about its less talented cousins, “naked, hairy animals, unenlightened, ungifted with speech.” They have a word down at Tea Party central for such a critter: Elitist. And Bruno would probably cop to it, too.
A less splendid debut than the hype would suggest, but a book of considerable merit all the same—and of high entertainment value, too, as much fun as a barrel of monkeys.