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"A Beautiful Truth" by Colin McAdam

In Colin McAdam's new novel, a childless couple in Addison County, Vermont buys a baby chimpanzee. At first he's a cute little guy, but what happens when an ape is raised as a human?

Colin McAdam begins his book in rural Vermont in the 1970s when it wasn't difficult for a man with enough money to buy a baby chimpanzee.

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

Walt buys the ape as a present for his wife Judy, a sad-eyed woman who wishes she could have had children of her own. The chimpanzee, Looee, delights and exhausts his new parents. McAdam writes, “[Looee] learned by observation, by staring and remembering. He learned to crack eggs.… He held the electric beater. He could spread butter on his toast with a knife. It was rarely done with grace or without a mess, but they imagined he would one day be more careful.”

But Walt and Judy know nothing about adolescent chimpanzees, their great strength and their impulsive violence. Looee wears overalls, goes fishing, eats with a fork and spoon and hoots with pleasure when he’s happy but he grows to be as strong as seven men and has the short attention span and jealousies of a child. After a hideous attack on humans he knows, he is sent to a primate research facility in Florida.

Here the book becomes almost unbearably grim. Looee, who has never seen another chimpanzee, thinks of the chimps as “dogpeople”. He is confined to a small cage in a room with fifteen other chimpanzees and injected with various viruses, including HIV, to see how his body responds. Years go by.

Meanwhile in another part of the research compound, a group of chimpanzees are kept in a more “natural” outside environment, males and females together, observed by scientists with cameras and clipboards. In these chapters the reader sees a society of shifting alliances and frequent fights. McAdam calls the chimps men and women and uses made-up chimp vocabulary. When Looee is put into this community of chimpanzees McAdam writes of the mood in the enclosure, “The ache for oa is universal. The arrival of the yek has provided some diversion but there is also even more instability.” Looee knows nothing about chimpanzee society and is severely wounded by the alpha male. He’s taken out of the big enclosure and isolated while he heals.

I found myself slowing down as I got near the end of this novel. I’d grown attached to Looee and I feared for his life. I won’t give anything away because A Beautiful Truth is definitely worth reading. I will say that Looee does finds some happiness in the leafy world of the big enclosure, where he is outside for the first time in years. Here’s McAdam when Looee has climbed the tallest tree. “He sees fields and buildings and cars and people. No one can see his face. He sways at the top and the tree nods and dips like an absurd and sage old dancer. The long melancholy sound like wind through wide pipes is Looee’s nervous song of joy, too soft for anyone to hear.”

In its worst moments, McAdam’s novel is a polemic about the evils of primate research. In its best moments the book uses short, powerful and poetic sentences to explore what it means to be an ape, a talking one or one who has everything except speech.

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