Chapman, a Britisher now living in the US, earns big bucks authoring screenplays. Now, as a great-great grandson of Charles Darwin, it’s appropriate that he use his writerly skills to report on current doings in Dayton, Tennessee, scene of the Scopes trial three-quarters of a century ago.
One might expect, on first looking into Chapman’s homage, that his text would be concerned chiefly with the notorious courtroom battle between the dark forces of evolution theory and the effulgent powers of creationist fundamentalism. The drama of the case and the Bryan-Darrow duel are depicted adequately, to be sure, but that’s been done before. Here, though, the trial is merely the hook upon which Chapman hangs his own coming-of-age yarn in a book that’s largely about the evolution of particular Darwinian progeny. It’s the story of Chapman’s parents—his cool, clever father and his alcoholic, promiscuous mother—and it’s also his own story. As any proper nostalgic Englishman must, Chapman describes his schooldays, complete with canings and nasty masters. He includes his vicissitudes as bibulous voyeur and eczema sufferer, as well as his chronic horniness. The result is solipsism run rampant and immoderately readable, particularly when the self-absorbed author takes us through the wilds of East Tennessee with his entertaining tale of an atheist among the Bible-thumpers. He sasses the hicks as if invested with the extravagant arrogance of H.L. Mencken (who was, of course, the premier reporter of the trial); for the bulk of his story, he just can’t suppress his supercilious sneer. And yet there is, ultimately, an unexpected respect for the rednecks, who treat him with puzzled respect and native courtesy. “If I went down an atheist,” he finally writes, “I came back an agnostic”—like Charles Darwin.
Caustic social history and, undiminished by a sentimental finale, a flamboyant autobiography by a trenchant talent.