October 2014

Malissa Stark


A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam

As many domestic tragedies begin, Judy and Walt Ribke must come to terms that they can't conceive a child. Their solution to that misfortune is where adventure begins in Colin McAdam's A Beautiful Truth. One day to Judy's surprise, Walt brings home baby Looee, an infant chimpanzee in a diaper and a red shirt. They both fall in love with their new child and begin to raise him as their own, but Looee brings a set of challenges they aren't prepared for. This novel alternates storylines between the Ribkes -- Looee included -- and a well-meaning scientist, Dave Kennedy, who spends his days studying the social interactions of chimpanzees at the Girdish Institute in Florida. After an unavoidable tragedy, Looee is given away and suffers years of medical testing. Eventually he finds himself spending the rest of his days with the colorful gang of chimpanzees in The Girdish Institute, reliving the horrors of what brought him there. The honesty, strength, and lyricism A Beautiful Truth brings is all stunning in McAdam's third novel.

It is easy for authors to anthropomorphize animal characters as a device to add a unique quality to a story, but McAdam uses the human qualities in Looee to cause conflict. Looee's actions pull him in two conflicting directions. In one moment the reader will see him eating chicken with a fork and flipping through a home decor magazine, the next he is screaming and climbing around the room. Looee embodies the classic interest humans have always had with chimpanzees and their genetic similarities. He is both wild and domestic and baffles every one he comes in contact with. Judy carries with her the honest melancholy of a woman who cannot have a child of her own. She is thrilled to be able to raise Looee, but the sadness never fades as she realizes that he will never go off to college, get married, and accomplish great things. It plays a very apparent role in the way she interacts with her friends and neighbors as she must deal with their judgment of Looee acting more as a pet than as a son.

In the parallel narrative, Dave experiences similar emotions. After dedicating his entire adult life studying the Girdish Institute group of chimpanzees, he cannot help but compare his own family to them. "I try to think of this house as shelter, my daughter as my offspring, and my wife as my temporary companion." It is the existential dilemma scientists throughout time have dealt with: Where does ape end and man begin? All of McAdam's characters share this sense of sad confusion related to identity in uniquely original ways.

Throughout the novel, McAdam plays with language on two fronts: scientific and poetic. The scientific, undoubtedly, is most present in scenes taking place at the Girdish Research Institute, and very clinical when noting the detailed actions of each resident. "Video captures every blow. They play it in slow motion and analyze each movement. Only 0.6 percent of all confrontation between the males in the colony will lead to an actual fight." During the medical testing scenes chimpanzees are referred to only by their serial numbers -- CH 563 for example. But the scientific language takes on special roles in some places, using phrases unfamiliar to the reader, as if these are the words the chimps would use if they were able to verbalize their language. "Burke tastes lapsy-dulchy pictures of Podo's demise, black fermented berries in the mouth." Such words as "Oa," "Yek," and "laspy-dulchy," are reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange.

The poetic language, however, spans Looee's story and even makes its way into the Girdish story at moments. There is a rawness apparent in interactions between Judy and Looee. "Looee lunged and nuzzled and squirmed and settled. He and Judy made unwritten noises and he looked at her with eyes of eagerness and purity, and she understood his hunger." This novel rests on the importance of these interactions. It is at its richest towards the end, adding profound insight into the human condition as David reflects on his wife's brief absence. "He drinks and listens to music and some nights they spend longer on the phone than others. After a month he decides that words are actually not the equal of touch. I miss you. He listens for telltale modulations in her voice but nothing is complete without sight and the feel of her body."

There is nothing worse than a beautiful story (especially as tragic as this one is) to end on a sour note. It isn't even that the last chapter is bad; it's just nothing compared to the penultimate chapter. While chapter thirty-three explores in depth the human condition as it relates to animal essence through breath taking memories and metaphors, the thirty-fourth chapter ends back in the institute, back in the clinical atmosphere with very little having changed, besides the very subtle laughter of the chimpanzees in their habitat. This chapter served as a closing return to normality, but it lacks elegance.

Colin McAdam has created a thought-provoking piece of art for animal lovers and humanitarians alike. The interactions carry a haunting realism that readers can attach themselves to and the characters and language create something quite and sad and addictive. This is a book worth picking up.

A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam
Soho Press
ISBN: 978-1616953782
292 pages