The smoke from Alberta wafted over the midwest, and now we’re breathing backyard barbecue again. As for reading on Memorial Day weekdend, so far I have inhaled T. C. Boyle’s Talk to Me in a day.
It is a novel about animal rights. It begins when Aimee Villard, a student who has trouble communicating , watches an episode of a game show, “To Tell the Truth.” The celebrity judges must decide which of three contestants is the real Professor Guy Schermerhorn, an animal behaviorist who has trained Sam, a young chimp, to speak in sign language.
Aimee recognizes Guy immediately by his professorial manner and intelligence: she also thinks she has seen him around, because her university in California is doing this research. And she is charmed when she sees the chimp Sam, in a polo shirt and diapers, run across the stage and jump into Guy’s arms.
Aimee gets a job working at the lab – actually a very nice house – and immediately becomes Sam’s favorite person. She has a mother-son relationship with Sam: they play hide and seek when he signs, PLAY ME HIDE SEEK; she names the objects in magazine pictures and Sam signs the words; and she even sleeps with Sam at night, because he has separation anxiety. When a news reporter asks Sam what his favorite thing is, first he signs PIZZA, then he changes his mind and signs AIMEE.
Boyle’s writing is taut and intelligent, and he sketches the believable inter-species family dynamics. Guy and Aimee become lovers, mainly because they are always together, and they share a common interest, Sam. Guy is the distracted father, worrying about money, marketing, and publishing his research, while Aimee is Sam’s loving mother, improving Sam’s life with her care and unwavering attention.
Naturally, any idyll has its drawbacks. Sam is very much like human beings, but he has the potential to be violent, simply because he is so strong. On Aimee’s first day, Sam has bitten one of the assistants on the cheek: the woman will have to have surgery, and there is talk of lawsuits. (Sam signs, SORRY, but it is not enough.)
Everything calms down with Aimee at the house – she takes over the role of Guy’s ex-, Melanie, who used to be Sam’s main caregiver. But then there is a tragedy, due to the greed and calculation of the cold, money-obsessed researcher who owns Sam and has let Guy “borrow” him..
Boyle captures the angst of the separation of Aimee and Sam when Moncrief, a one-eyed professor in Davenport, Iowa, says that the grant money is running out and he must take Sam back to Iowa, where he may sell all his chimps to medical researchers. Like any adoring mother, Aimee is heartbroken. She follows Sam to Iowa, where he and other chimps are tortured and never leave their cages. Aimee eventually frees him, and she and Sam go on the lam.
But it isn’t as easy for Aimee and Sam as it was for Bonnie and Clyde, she realizes wryly. Can an animal rights activist – really a mother – save her chimp son?
Talk to Me is brilliant, fascinating, and heartbreaking. A great read!