Book Reviews: 'Me Cheeta,' 'Amberville,' 'Breathers'

By Claudia Deane
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Have you heard this one: A chimp, a teddy bear and a zombie walk into a book review . . . Yes, spring brings three new offerings with nonhuman (or at least ex-human) protagonists, each featuring deep love and real loss, along with some strange comedy.

The clumsy, ungrammatical title of Me Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood (Ecco, $24.99) is a mere cinematic allusion, a literary device favored by Cheeta in this lyrical and profane memoir-cum-love-story. The love in question is between Cheeta, a chimp who gained fame playing second banana in the Tarzan films of the 1930s and '40s, and his loinclothed bosom buddy, the Olympic swimming champion and happy-go-lucky hunk Johnny Weissmuller. The book is part meditation on cages of all sorts, including those constructed by Hollywood celebrity, and part silver screen tell-all. Who knows if all this backstage gossip is true? (We're taking the word of a chimp here.) But really, who cares? Cheeta schmoozed, smoked, drank and fornicated with the best of them -- Lombard, Hepburn, Barrymore, Crawford, Niven, Chaplin, Dietrich (ouch, he really doesn't like Dietrich), and he's not afraid to talk about it. Spoiler alert: The British press -- killjoys that they are -- have exposed James Lever as Cheeta's ghostwriter. And a recent article in The Post suggests that the real, live Palm Springs chimp reputed to be Cheeta may be no such thing. All irrelevant: The book is hilarious, catty, melancholy and, occasionally, deep.

* * * When I tell you that Eric is a teddy bear of a guy who doesn't deserve to get sucked back down into the seamy gangster underworld of his youth, I'm being literal: He's an actual teddy bear. The kind you slept with as a toddler. And because he's married to a hot stuffed rabbit under threat from a merciless dove, he's forced to hook up with his old gang: a victimized crow who has turned to embroidery, a drug-addicted gazelle working in the sex trade, and a snake who's a corrupt government bureaucrat. Stuffed animals all. Weird? Obviously. But oddly gripping and convincing. Amberville, (Harper, $19.99) originally published in Swedish, is the first novel by the pseudonymous Tim Davys. It's a brutal tale, much of which takes place in a desperate ghetto. This is hard to get your mind around when the thugs you read about pass for toys in our world. For instance, when Eric is getting roughed up by the dove's henchmen, "he coughed, not seeing the cotton coming out of his mouth." Should you flinch? Laugh? Both? There's more than stuffing here, though, including questions of good vs. evil, life vs. death, and sanity vs. insanity. Skip that evening Scotch and read this one stone-cold sober -- it's plenty trippy as is.

* * *Andy Warner was just an average 34-year-old Californian when he slammed his Passat into a redwood tree in a freak accident, killing himself and his wife and orphaning their young daughter. This would be the end of his story except that, "reanimated," he's now a widowed zombie who limps around smelling of decomposing flesh (because he's decomposing). He leaves the hideout in his parents' wine cellar only to visit a therapist and attend Undead Anonymous meetings. Happily for him, at UA he meets a hot 23-year-old suicide and, more good news, "zombie sex is phenomenally superior to Breather sex." The publisher calls S.G. Browne's Breathers (Broadway; Paperback, $14) a romantic zombie comedy, or -- this is cute -- a rom-zom-com. But having a low gross-out threshold, I was primarily nauseated. Andy sneezes, a piece of brain comes out his nose. A stitch pops at lunch and, oops, a chunk of rotting tissue graces his gazpacho. It's all here: maggots, skin flaps, cannibalism, frat boys. Talk about deadpan humor.

Deane is a writer in Silver Spring.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company