Prepare to e-mail all your cleverest friends and recommend Trials of the Monkey, Matthew Chapman's wickedly funny, politically incorrect diatribe on religious superstition and other human follies.
The narrative is loosely organized around the yearly re-enactment of the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee. In 1925, biology teacher John Scopes was tried for teaching evolution in the public classroom in defiance of Tennessee laws. Chapman has a piquant relationship to his subject: he is the great, great grandson of Charles Darwin, who pioneered evolutionary theory. Chapman's ostensible mission in this book is to travel to Dayton and report on the re-enactment of the Scopes trial. But this purpose is virtually lost in his wickedly delightful portraits of the people he meets on his journey. Chapman, an Englishman living in New York who writes for the film industry, harbors some predictable stereotypes about the rural southeastern United States. Yet he profiles his victims in such intriguing detail and with such wit that reading his book is a lot like eating chocolate mousse: You know you shouldn't, but it's just so delicious. The author doesn't spare himself the edge of his own razor-sharp insight. Alternating chapters are devoted to exposing the most sordid moments of his childhood. But what does Chapman's reckless adolescence have to do with the re-enactment of the Scopes trial? This is where you have to read with some subtlety, but the key lies, perhaps, in the following sentence: When Darwin called his second book The Descent of Man instead of The Ascent of Man, he was thinking of his progeny. Evolution doesn't always go forward, in other words. Just look at me, the author quips. Similarly, Dayton, Tennessee, which in 1925 gloried in debating evolution with full intellectual vigor, has subsequently subsided into religious complacency and complete denial of scientific discovery, Chapman indicates.
Witty, incisive and shockingly irreverent, Chapman's talents have been largely buried in a pile of unproduced Hollywood scripts. Though he has made millions on his writing, he is virtually unknown to the reading world. With luck, Trials of the Monkey will be the first step in reversing that misfortune.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.