Jeff Weiss' first Middle Grade novel, Fourth and Ape, the Field Goal Kicker with the Secret Gorilla Leg is a fun 'boy' adventure reminiscent of the old Disney movie, "The Absent-Minded Professor" and other such genres. Mr. Weiss' Amazon page spells out the plot and there isn't much more to it than that, but the protagonist begins to grow on you as he tries to deal with his new found dilemma. With a nod to Kafka and a twisted nod to steroid use in sports today and all its ethical and legal ramifications, Mr. Weiss shies away from becoming too serious. While the book is touted for readers aged 7-12, I would think this work (with its more simplistic dialogues) would appeal mostly to the 7-10 year olds.
It takes awhile (a bit too long for me) to figure out some basic premises. I never knew where the action takes place, and it isn't until pg 202 that seagulls are mentioned, so I know the setting is, at least, somewhere coastal. Mr. Weiss writes in the first person and for many, many pages "I" is just a high schooler "I" (with a short physical description thrown in) and there is an odd weightless feeling that keeps the book from being grounded. I am one of those readers who wants the three unities established from the get go so that I can begin the journey on sure footing. On page 30 "I" finally identifies himself as Ivan Zelinka; on page 67 we are told he drives, so he must be at least 16, but these piecemeal tidbits tossed at us seemed unsettling. It was hard to establish the essence of the main character: I wanted something concrete to hang my hat on. After page 67, I felt 'better'. Perhaps a nine-year-old would not be so picky.
Don't get me wrong: Mr. Weiss has a great story, and I actually laughed out loud when the Coach says to Ivan, "What the heck did you eat for breakfast?" The football narratives are compelling and fun and full of those terrific grounded details I longed to see in the other scenes. The scientists are one-dimensional and somewhat silly, but the whole plot is silly and Mr. Weiss, you can tell, is smiling as he writes each enjoyable word.
A bit of continuity can go a long way. A trip to the zoo just at sunset becomes a four hour tour whereby at the end of the tour the narrator writes, "Everyone groaned. No one wanted to go back to the tents . It looked like there would be another half-hour of twilight..."
I don't know where this story takes place, but they have five hour long sunsets. Next time, I'll bring my watercolors.
I also couldn't understand why a 6'3" high school footballer who weighs 200 pounds would be wearing pajamas while camping in a tent.
But those are annoying details that can be readily explained. Mr. Weiss clearly loves his character Ivan. He endows him with the skills and the sensitivity to see the powerful force and lessons the animal kingdom can teach us. He gives Ivan an innocence and growing pains all at the same time, and I love that Ivan understands the yin and yang of food and reads Kafka in German. Now if he would only stay away from those mysterious laboratories late at night.