Who is Matthew Chapman?
Professor tells court evolution is inadequate
Dover school district witness refers to gaps in Darwin's theory
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
BY BILL SULON Of The Patriot-News
"As Behe testified, Darwin's great-great-grandson, Hollywood screenwriter Matthew Chapman, sat 10 feet away taking notes. Chapman may use material from the trial in a documentary."
"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.
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Book Review By Damien Cave
Nov. 21, 2001 | 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.
Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir By Matthew Chapman St. Martin's Press 367 pages Nonfiction
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