“Trials of the Monkey” by Matthew Chapman

Charles Darwin's boozy, girl-crazy great-great-grandson goes to Tennessee to sneer at the Bible-quoting locals -- and stays to learn a lesson in faith.

Topics: Evolution, Books,

Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson Matthew Chapman had a simple plan: He would go to Dayton, Tenn., watch the town’s annual reenactment of the Scopes Monkey Trial and report on how Americans’ religious and scientific views have changed since 1925, when Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan first clashed over the right to teach evolution. A self-described atheist, he headed to Dayton expecting to sneer at and ridicule the locals, much as H.L. Mencken did during the actual “Trial of the Century

But Chapman — a Hollywood screenwriter with “Consenting Adults” and other thrillers to his name — never sees his prospective plot materialize. “Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir” is just that, accidental. Perhaps because he actually missed the Scopes reenactment that was supposed to be the story’s hub, Chapman ends up turning inward. He’s written a book that’s part family history, part travel essay, part personal religious commentary. And while “Trials of the Monkey” is too quirky and personal to satisfy scholars on either side of the scientific and religious divide, the book still makes sense. With keen observation, self-deprecating humor and a confessional style that boils away the sentimental fat, Chapman has managed to create an unconventional memoir of the collision between his weighty legacy and his quixotic life.

The book starts with Chapman in the throes of a midlife crisis. Describing himself as an “adolescent lobbed into middle age without the necessary equipment,” Chapman explains in the prologue that he’s been making close to a million dollars a year, but is still never more than a month or two from bankruptcy. Living a life of irresponsible Manhattan excess, fighting regularly with his shaman-following wife and trying to manage the same love of alcohol that killed his mother, Chapman is not a happy man. By the time he gets on the Greyhound bus to Dayton, he’s asking himself “how much of my sense of failure and panic … could be traced to my freakish antecedents?”

The great naturalist, it turns out, plays only a minor role in the author’s misery. Chapman suggests that his mother would not have become an alcoholic if she didn’t feel the burden of being a Darwin; his own disgust with formal education may have also derived from the same source. But for the most part, Chapman’s relatively mild state of depression seems to result from his steady pursuit of physical ecstasy to the exclusion of almost anything else. His life story — recounted in short chapters that alternate with accounts of his time in Dayton — is essentially a tale of successes and failures with booze and the opposite sex.

Granted, Chapman is not the first, nor even the most interesting, drunken erotomaniac to get a book deal, but his vivid memory and sense of humor keep the anecdotes from feeling stale. It’s hard not to laugh, for example, when reading about Chapman’s first sexual (and spiritual?) experience, which occurred at age 5 when his teacher’s teenage daughter rolled on top of him “like a hot tuna.” The sheer ingenuity he employs in order to catch glimpses of women also proves amusing, as do the myriad ways that his plans are foiled.

The book’s most comical passages, however, deal with Chapman’s biggest failures. He has a gift for mixing regret with the kind of humor that only comes through self-examination. He’s reserved enough not to focus on his own pain after a drunk-driving arrest, and witty enough to tell readers that he was also charged with “attempting to bribe a Metropolitan policeman with a sausage.” Would the average Hollywood writer really be able to poke fun at his own narcissism while admitting that his first wife (Victoria Tennant) left him for Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin)? Probably not. It’s to Chapman’s credit that he does.

He also deserves praise for knowing when to cut the funny business. The scenes with many of the women he beds are surprisingly sweet. Those with his mother — when she brings him home from an allergist, when she’s drunk at family dinners, when she dies and when Chapman carries her ashes home in an urn — crackle with emotional complexity. Chapman’s frustration, his anger and ultimately his love for her can be felt on the page. The contrast, the sudden, conspicuous lack of humor, serves to intensify their force.

But what’s all this have to do with Dayton and the Scopes Trial?

For Chapman, Dayton becomes a turning point. To his surprise, he discovers a soft spot for the Jesus freaks. Between reading historical accounts of the Scopes trial — which he paraphrases for the reader with a special focus on William Jennings Bryan and the worldwide attention showered on Dayton — Chapman meets and greets a series of interesting characters who win him over.

There’s Gloria, the divorced, bankrupt eternal optimist who runs the bed and breakfast Chapman stays at while in Dayton. There’s Rocky, the muscular local cop who lets Chapman join him on a patrol of Dayton’s seedier side. There’s even a handful of drunks who manage to get Chapman some moonshine.

Then there are the folks at Bryan College, a Christian university named after the “Great Commoner.” Chapman spends a good deal of time with the school’s teachers and students, spelunking in caves and hiking the local mountains. Some of the students provoke him. Their asexuality, their insistence that more atheists commit suicide than Christians, their blind faith in creationism, their belief that God will send most people to hell — all drive him to the verge of insanity. “It’s almost as if I’m the center of a joke and don’t know it,” he writes. But overall, the Christians Chapman gets to know make him realize that the need for spirituality is nearly universal even if religion itself makes no sense.

Kurt Wise, one of the world’s leading “creation scientists,” single-handedly alters Chapman’s view of faith. With a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard, Wise should be one of Darwin’s local proponents. Instead, he’s convinced that the world is 6,000 years old and that God created it in seven days. Though he studied under Stephen Jay Gould, one of the world’s most revered experts on evolution, Wise even remains convinced that the world’s fossils were created by the Great Flood.

To Chapman, this is pure craziness. But while he’s always despised religion (“in particular its resistance to scientific progress”), Chapman likes Wise, finds him generous and sincere. Wise’s heartfelt struggle to fuse God and science somehow cracks through Chapman’s jaded shell. “My intellectual views remain the same, but in some significant way, my feelings have changed,” he writes. “Faith in God or any of the fairy tales that surround Him may be absurd, but the need for faith is anything but. When you encounter someone like Kurt, you realize that faith is sometimes an absolute necessity.”

To his credit, Chapman’s transformation never becomes complete. He flirts with the idea of creating a religion that starts with self-love and extends to care for the less fortunate, but he hasn’t written “Out on a Limb” or the “Celestine Prophecy.” He ultimately experiences no call to the altar. He hasn’t given up drinking by the book’s end and still plans to write for movies. The same critical gaze he fixed on himself still gets pointed toward the locals — “the preachers, whose faith seemed fanatical in its conviction, cruel in its form, and useless in its effect.”

And yet, there’s been a development. By the end of the book, Chapman has learned to empathize with his superstitious wife and he’s learned to seek more than just another drink or orgasm. He still feels confident enough in his disdain for religion to declare that science and Christianity today are more at odds than they were 75 years ago, but he’s not above entertaining godly thoughts. He’s essentially moved from atheism to agnosticism.

At times, even this subtle conversion feels forced. Will Chapman really go to Africa to help the poor? Doesn’t he see that a moral philosophy founded on his own personal desires sounds a lot like an excuse for selfishness?

There are other flaws too. Most of them are literary. Some of the metaphors, for example, should have been extinguished. The line about Chapman needing his wife “to apply the plunger of her conviction to the turbulence of my uncertainty” might strike some as poetic, but it sounded like unintended Monty Python to me. And actually, since Chapman never attended the Scopes trial reenactment, it’s tough to shake the feeling that his book is in part an effort to appease an editor in order to avoid giving back his advance.

Still, Chapman’s honesty and his ability to create a scene carry “Trials of the Monkey” past these obstacles. The book may be accidental, but it’s hardly a failure.

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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