Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir

Chapman, Matthew

Published by Picador, 2001
ISBN 10: 0312283571 / ISBN 13: 9780312283575
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Signed 0312283571 Inscribed by Matthew Chapman. By the great, great grandson of Charles Darwin. Dj blurb by Spalding Gray. Bookseller Inventory #

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Synopsis: "When Darwin called his second book The Descent of Man instead of The Ascent of Man he was thinking of his progeny."

So declares Darwin's great-great grandson Matthew Chapman as he leaves behind his stressful career as a Hollywood screenwriter and travels to Dayton, Tennessee where in 1925 creationist opposition to the teaching of evolution in schools was played out in a famous legal drama, the Scopes Trial.

The purpose of this journey is to see if opinions have changed in the seventy- five intervening years. A defiant atheist, Chapman is confronted not only by the fundamentalist beliefs that continue to banish the theory of evolution but by his own spiritual malaise as the outward journey becomes an inward quest, a tragicomic "accidental memoir".

"First there was Charles Darwin, two yards long and nobody's fool. Then there was his son, my great-grandfather, Sir Francis Darwin, an eminent botanist. Then came my grandmother Frances, a modest poet who spent a considerable amount of time in rest-homes for depression From her issued my beloved mother, Clare, who was extremely short, failed to complete medical school, and eventually became an alcoholic. Then we get down to me. I'm in the movie business."

Trials of the Monkey combines travel writing and reportage, as Chapman records his encounters in the South, with history and the accidental memoir of a man full of mid-life doubts in a genre-breaking first book that is darkly funny, provocative and poignant.

Review: It seems like the perfect premise--Charles Darwin's great-grandson travels by bus from New York City to Dayton, Tennessee, to witness a reenactment of the infamous 1925 Scopes trial and see how--or if--attitudes toward evolution have changed. Call it "The Voyage of the Greyhound," if you will. But it didn't work out that way.

Matthew Chapman set out to write such a book, but ended up penning this "accidental memoir." Trials of the Monkey is remarkably compelling, given that the narrative wanders back and forth in time, across continents, and all over the place thematically. Descriptions of Chapman's youthful desires, his mother's alcoholism, and the world of Hollywood screenwriting are interspersed with tales of riding along with a Dayton cop on a Friday night, spelunking with Christian students, even sipping moonshine from a jam jar in a restroom stall ("To my surprise, it's excellent").

Those seeking a detailed account of the trial may be disappointed, though Chapman does offer up evocative glimpses, such as prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan--renowned as an orator--quietly telling attorney for the defense Dudley Malone, "Dudley, that was the greatest speech I ever heard." The book is at its best, however, when Chapman reveals his own feelings, such as his realization that though he came in part to "poke fun at [the] hillbillies," everyone had been "just as nice as all get out" to him. The intervening 75 years since the trial may not have changed Dayton very much, but they have seen a widening of the division between creationists and evolutionists. "If something like the Scopes trial was staged now," Chapman notes, "people would be afraid for their lives." --Sunny Delaney

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Bibliographic Details

Title: Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir
Publisher: Picador
Publication Date: 2001
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Fine
Edition: Second Printing

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