Thursday, October 16, 2014


It’s a scorching, dry Saturday morning in California. Another rainless summer has turned the hills above San Leandro yellowish-gray. My taxi turns off a serpentine drive into an empty parking lot.

Embedded in the hillside, the Alameda Juvenile Justice Center is a vast, rectangular three-story construction, built with beige cinder blocks that blend in well with its surroundings. There’s no one in sight.

After instructing my taxi driver to return in 90 minutes, I activate the intercom next to the weekend entrance. “Who is it?” asks a female voice.

“Greg Cummings. I’m the author giving a talk to Unit 4 today.”


“Greg Cummings. Amy Cheney arranged my visit…”

“Hang on a minute hun.”

While I wait for clearance into the prison, Mountain Mike’s escape story comes to mind.

When Mountain Mike escaped a minimum-security federal correctional facility called William Head on Vancouver Island, he fashioned a raft from a coffin used in the prison’s amateur theatre production of Dracula, then paddled out across the Juan de Fuca Straits towards the Canadian mainland.

The coffin disintegrated and Mike sank to the bottom of the cold straights. “I was sure I was a goner,” he recalled, “but a divine light beaconed me upward again. And then I found the strength to resurface and swim ashore.” He had a couple of weeks of freedom before the Mounties caught up with him.

I heard about Mountain Mike from one of his fellow inmates. It was October 1983, and I had just watched a performance of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by William Head on Stage (WHoS), an inmate-run prison theatre company – the only one in Canada that invites the public into the prison to see their shows. I was struck by the force of the cast’s performances, playing to a packed house, unbound by their incarceration. I had never seen such savage intensity in the eyes of actors.


Amy Cheney and I connected by chance, in July 2013, while I was googling mentions of my novel. In a piece titled ‘On the Shelf with Amy Cheney’ that was posted on the Children’s Book Review blog, Cheney is asked which books are most frequently checked out of her library. “Right now it’s War Brothers by Sharon McKay—anything about child soldiers my kids can relate to. Gorillaland by Greg Cummings is also doing well. Everyone has read Coe Booth, Simone Elkeles, Alexander Gordon Smith and Ishmael Beah. Action, relevance and overall great stuff.”

Her love of literature, and a tearaway nature led her to a career in the California correctional system, turning young minds on to books. “One of my students who never read before said when she heard me talk about books it sounded like candy, and she wanted some.”

Yesterday, pushing a cartload of my novels through the corridors of the Juvenile Hall, zig-zagging between cell units and the library, she seemed protected by a forcefield of persuasive intent, like a Jedi knight.

I was supposed to arrive in time to give three talks on Friday, but a mega-storm over Texas delayed my appearance by twelve hours, so I was only able to give one. Hence a second visit has been arranged. It being a Saturday, I’m now flying solo.

Every door has a buzzer and an overhead camera. I press the button. After a moment the door unlocks and I’m able to turn the handle. I pass through several empty rooms and corridors, repeating the process again and again. The final door slides open on its own. A guard in a darkened control room peers through the reinforced glass at the contents of my rucksack, takes my Canadian passport via a drawer in the wall, and then asks me to sign the register. I’m in.

Notwithstanding the two nights I spent locked up in British holding cells – for separate offenses – and the previous afternoon, this is my first time entering a correctional facility since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In the belly of the facility six windowless units house dozens of young offenders whose ages range from nine to seventeen. Most are serving long sentences. They’re all locked up when I enter Unit 4, a sky-lit two-story common room surrounded on two levels by cells. I introduce myself to a woman in uniform seated behind a raised console. She smiles, shakes my hand. She is expecting me and directs me to an adjacent classroom.

With a mix of anxiety and enthusiasm, I scan the colorful displays pinned to the classroom walls. The vibe is encouraging without being too condescending. Then, one by one, a coterie of teenage boys saunters in, comprising a range of heights, builds, ethnicities, and attitudes. Each one introduces himself, shakes my hand, then finds a seat. It’s like an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter.

“I’m here to talk about gorillas,” I holler, hoping the resonance of my voice will calm the room. “The band or the ape?” asks a round-faced Latino kid. He is a picture of candidness. On the faces of the others I see genuine interest, though many appear ambivalent, and a couple have only come to socialize. “The ape,” I smile.

During a gorilla slide show, I tell them how a silverback gets his name, the politics of gorilla groups, and their similarity to humans – that we share 97 per cent of our genetic makeup with gorillas. A wiry black kid at the back of the classroom raises his hand. “Is it true that you can get a blood transfusion from a gorilla and survive?”

“Good question,” I reply, surprised by his grasp of the subject. “Yes, you could potentially survive one transfusion from a great ape, providing the blood type matched.”

I do my impression of a charging silverback. Starting from a squat position, I utter a series of hoot sounds, rapidly slapping my chest in quick succession, and with a loud bark I leap forward, to uproarious laughter from the kids. “And what do you do if a silverback charges?” I ask, catching my breath.

“Bounce! Bail ass out of there…”

“No. If you run you are sure to die. You must stand perfectly still and act submissively, avoiding all eye contact with the charging silverback.” Incredulous laughter.

I read a chapter of Gorillaland, the story of Dieudonné, a child soldier who, after years in the service of the rebel warlord General Cosmo Zomba wa Zomba, is forced to witness the execution of his parents. In the aftermath of an earthquake he takes flight with the general’s diamonds, his heart set on freedom, and runs all the way to Uganda, only to have it all tragically end in the jaws of two hungry lions. 

“Aw what? No way! The kid gets eaten by lions? What happened to the diamonds?” 

But my hour is up. As they leave the classroom some of the kids give me a ‘bro hug’ and thank me warmly. I am touched.

Life is about choices and prospects. Young people make mistakes and face tough challenges as they try to revive their prospects in life. It’s the same for every one, whether or not you are imprisoned for your mistakes.

The difference with inmates is that they are given few choices after incarceration. Punishment is king. This absence of volition is an obstacle to inspiring them. On the other hand, they are a captive audience. Turn these young minds on and I know they will read my novels, and maybe one day write their own.


Come Spring 1984, five months after I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I was working for Stage II, a theatre group established for, and by, ex-offenders, after their release from William Head. We were staging One For The Road, Harold Pinter’s bleak one-act play set in a prison in a fictitious totalitarian country, which had premiered in London and New York in the two months previous. Ours was the world’s first amateur production, and the company was excited about blazing such a trail in stagecraft.

Stage II faced unique challenges, like keeping the actors in one place. A month before opening night one of our principles went AWOL, hitting the road for greater freedom, and in total violation of his parole. No one in the company harbored any ill will towards the guy. He did what he had to do. We found someone to replace him and hoped the new guy would last. He stole the show.

Working in the theatre with ex-offenders I watched men struggle to temper their emotional intensity through artistic expression. Often the roles were reversed: the tenderhearted newspaper salesman on stage was once an armed robber. Having the freedom to express oneself is not the same as freedom itself.

In the eyes of the young men that came to hear me talk at the Alameda Juvenile Justice Center I saw souls that were drowning. I think I understand. I hope my talk and reading, a career milestone, provided some resuscitation, however briefly.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Gorillaland - Chapter Three

When the earthquake struck, Dieudonné Batinde was already half way up the road to Goma. The first chance he got, he ran, and he had not stopped running since. Even when the road shook violently beneath him, and the lake overflowed, he did not stop running. He had Godspeed. He knew it was God’s will that he make it to freedom that day. He would keep on running until his feet, bound and bloodied, had carried him there. 
He hated the general with all his heart and soul. Five years he had been in his army. Those five years were the worst that any a boy could ever endure. He was made to do things no dog of war would ever do. How many people had he been forced to kill? How many had he killed willingly? How many had he raped, mutilated, tortured? He knew exactly how many as well as the exact nature of every one of his crimes. They remained clear in his mind, just as vivid as the moment they happened. No amount of ganja, pussy or Kahuzi whisky could ever erase those memories. 
They called them the Lost Boys, because that’s what they were, lost: lost from their childhoods, their siblings, their parents, schools, societies, lost in the jungle. Dieudonné had been lost for some time. He found his way again, through the Lord. He learned to take comfort in his nightmares. In a strange kind of way, they reaffirmed his faith in God. For he knew there was no way a just God would fix in his mind such horrifying memories, if he had not already forgiven him and, indeed, had a much better life planned for him elsewhere. 
Dieudonné had no idea how much the diamonds were worth but he knew they’d fetch a good price in a neighbouring country. He considered taking them to Rwanda, which was just across the lake. Both his mother and father were Rwandese. God rest their tortured souls. Taking into account his war crimes and the many battles he’d fought against their army, he did not believe he would get a fair hearing in that country. 
As the bird flies, Uganda was about two hundred and thirty kilometres north of his present location. He’d heard that they knew how to mend child soldiers up there. He would have to keep running at twenty kilometres an hour to reach the border before dawn. There was no doubt in his mind that he could make it. 
His prayers had been answered that very morning when he was chosen from all the other boys to accompany General Zomba on a trip to Bukavu. He should have killed him while he walked along the mountain road with him and a satchel full of deadly weapons. Foolishly, the general had made no effort to hide the fact that he was carrying his precious diamonds. Dieudonné knew how important those stones were to him, and how it would destroy all his plans if he were to lose them. He knew he must steal them. 
Miraculously, the opportunity presented itself just outside Bukavu when UN soldiers stopped them. It was while the general was busy looking in Dieudonné’s satchel for his weapons that he daringly reached back and, with the agility of a seasoned pickpocket, carefully removed the diamonds. He expected to be caught that very moment, but the general was too concerned about being unmasked by the United Nations to notice. An hour later, after the general had sped away on his speedboat, Dieudonné wrapped the diamonds in the cellophane he’d saved from his cake, and swallowed them. Then he began to run. He was a good runner, as fast as an impala. God had given him the gift of savage speed.
With the wind behind him, he kept up his pace. He stuck to the road that followed the western lakeshore north. The lake of fire. One day God would throw the general and Duke into that lake, and they would burn for all eternity.
He reached Goma just before midnight. He knew the general probably had a search party already out looking for him, so he skulked through the centre of town, trying not to attract the attention of the Goma police. At least they were easy to spot in their bright yellow helmets, even at night on dimly lit streets. 
Once on the outskirts of town he started sprinting again. The road north from Goma would take him the final hundred and thirty kilometres to Uganda – west of the Virunga volcanoes, through Rutshuru, and Rwindi, and finally to the border. It was also the most dangerous road in Africa, and he knew it. Many had lost their lives on that road. He risked being shot by snipers, ambushed by thieves, knocked down by sleeping truck drivers, or even mauled by a wild animal. In any event, nothing could stop his headlong dash. 
He had not eaten anything since the half-cake the general had bought him in Bukavu, but he was nonetheless full of energy. Mount Nyrangongo’s red glow guided his way up the road, even through the gathering clouds. Respect to the mountain god, stirring your pot of molten rocks. The road had recently been graded, which made it easier to run on. It began to rain, then it began to rain harder, then harder still, but he was undeterred. It is God’s will that I make it to freedom this day. With every stride he grew increasingly filled with divine purpose, as though he was splashing through puddles of it in his Sunday best. The more the heavens opened up the more righteous he became. 
When he reached the deserted village of Kibumba, he found cause to reflect on his short, unhappy life. Though there was no longer any trace of it, Kibumba had once been a vast refugee camp. It was in that camp, back in 1996, when this country was still called Zaire, that his mother fell pregnant with him. His parents were Hutu refugees, who had fled from the invading Tutsi army in Rwanda. By the time she was due to give birth, the Tutsis had invaded again. Kibumba, along with all the other refugee camps, was raised to the ground. They were forced to move westward through the dense Congo jungle to Tingi-Tingi. It was in that unlucky place that Dieudonné was born.

Dieudonné had been running for twelve hours nonstop. He was beginning to see visions, but that was to be expected on such a rapturous marathon. He saw one that stirred him to his very soul. Floating blissfully heavenward like sleeping angels were all of his victims, all the people he had killed, all the innocents of Kivu, rising up from the jungle floor where they had been slain.
By now the clouds had scattered, and against the starry sky he could clearly make out the outline of the Virunga range of volcanoes. Mount Sabinyo, old man’s teeth, laughing like a mad witch doctor. The lair of the gorillas. He liked gorillas, more than chimpanzees. In all the monster fables he’d heard growing up, children captured by gorillas always fared better than those captured by chimpanzees. On occasion he’d even found cause to eat them, despite a tribal taboo, and gorilla definitely tasted better than chimpanzee. 
He was getting nearer to the Ugandan border now. How would the Ugandan authorities greet him? No doubt they would understand why he had to slip across their frontier unannounced. He was a refugee, a runaway child soldier. They would embrace him and then they would help mend him. A new abundant life was waiting for him just across that border. With the diamonds he would start a mission for former pikis like himself. Yes, that was his calling. He would use the general’s diamonds to do God’s work. 
It was in the final hour of darkness that Dieudonné at last reached Uganda. He recognised it by where the road descends into a flatter landscape, and the vegetation changes from forest to savannah, which also marked the start of lion country, though he worried no more about lions than he did about gorillas. He didn’t believe God would allow him to be eaten by lions after such a dash to freedom. By this time he was so filled with the Holy Spirit that he was utterly invincible. He continued to stride across the prickly savannah.
First light was appearing on the horizon. How appropriate that the sun should start to rise at that moment. Dieudonné’s visions were everywhere: burning bushes, talking serpents, laughing genies, dancing rods and staffs. But he was undaunted by Satan, and began to sing. 

The commotion did not go unnoticed by a pair of male lions who had been roaming the grassy plains for days, searching for food. The rains had driven all the antelope away and there was very little to sustain them in this valley. They were growing hungrier and hungrier with each passing hour. Soon it would be daybreak, when they would stand a better chance of at least catching a hare or a lizard. Now it would seem their search was over. They stood for a moment, panting through hungry jaws, twitching their keen circular ears for some clue in the darkness. Then they began to creep through the tall grass. Once they were close enough to see their prey they stopped. He did not look like much, but a lean meal was better than no meal, and he was coming towards them. They crouched down and waited.

Dieudonné stopped in his tracks. He thought he heard something. It was the first time during his entire day-long journey that he stopped. Who’s there? Is that you, Lord? He waited and then, as expected, out of the darkness, walking towards him, and wearing sackcloth and a seraphim smile, came the Lord Jesus Christ. His hair was golden and flowing, and he was surrounded by heavenly light. As the Lord opened his mouth to speak to him, he saw that the Lord had very sharp teeth. Why is that? The next thing he felt was a searing bolt of pain flash through his stomach. By the time Dieudonné realised what was happening to him it was too late: the two gigantic lions were tearing apart his abdomen, with stabbing, searing, excruciating blows. 


Gorillaland by Greg Cummings, available on Amazon

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Meet Me in San Diego

I'll be appearing at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego, CA, Monday, October 6, at 7:30 PM, signing and reading from my new novel Pirates

Mysterious Galaxy is an independent genre bookstore that is passionate about creating and maintaining a community of readers, authors, and booksellers. I am honored to be offered this opportunity to interact with my readers at such a respected and appreciated independent bookstore. Here's how they are promoting me: 

"Greg Cummings is an award-winning wildlife conservationist who achieved remarkable success protecting gorilla populations in the wild through community-based initiatives in East and Central Africa. He introduced safari tour company runner Derek Strangely, in Gorillaland, an adventure of crime, civil war, and ecological catastrophe set deep in the Congolese jungle. Strangely survives to return in Pirates; he has relocated to Kampala, Uganda, when he is contacted by a friend whose past is entangled with pirates from the Federal Republic of Somalia. 

"Greg will discuss the challenge of  incorporating global conflicts into fictional adventure." 

Bring your family and friends. 

7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd
San Diego CA 92111
(858) 268 4747

Pirates is available in store and at the Mysterious Galaxy website

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Dancing Stones of Namoratunga

Excerpt from Pirates by Greg Cummings:

Night had fallen and they needed to find somewhere to camp. The lakeshore was still a way off, yet the smell of sulphur blowing across the flats from Lake Turkana was overwhelming. Their surroundings were astonishingly serene, and there was not a wisp of cloud anywhere in the sky. Billions of stars were scattered across it, of such magnitudes they lit up the earth more vividly than a full moon. It was as though the universe had flipped and they were standing upside down in a stellar millpond. Although sodden, their clothes were quickly drying in the warm, parched air. “There’s definitely an otherworldly quality to this place,” said Derek, wringing the water from his scarf. 
“I know,” said Abdulmajid. “It scares me.” 
“Somewhere near here is where they found Nariokotome: Turkana boy, a one-and-a-half-million-year-old hominid.”
“Who?” asked Abdulmajid.
Homo ergaster, one of your earliest ancestors.”
“Your ancestor, maybe,” laughed Abdulmajid.
“I’m telling you,” insisted Derek, “this is one ape you’d be proud to call Grandpa. He was an incredibly fast runner, and the stone tools he used were far more advanced than anyone expected to find from that far back in time.” 
“I guess Nariokotome liked his high-tech gadgets just as much as the next guy,” grinned Abdulmajid.
“You could be kicking some of Nariokotome’s bones around as you walk.”
“It certainly feels like a graveyard.”
“What the hell’s this?” gasped Derek, stopping suddenly. Spread out before them, across an area ten by twenty metres in size, was an array of stone pillars averaging a metre in height and protruding at different angles from a layer of smaller stones. “Sure is one incredible sight out in the middle of nowhere,” he whispered, touching the tops of the shiny basalt monoliths as he walked between them. Some had pebbles on top of them, laid out in figures of eight. “I would say this place definitely serves some sort of scholarly purpose,” he added. “Look at the way they’re all arranged. It’s like a miniature Stonehenge.” 
Abdulmajid wasn’t as keen to go wandering through them. “Could these be the Dancing Stones of Namaratunga?” he asked, scratching his chin. 
“The dancing stones of what?”
Just then a voice spoke from the darkness beyond the pillars. “The Turkana believe they were dancers who were turned to stone after they mocked a malevolent spirit.” Derek and Abdulmajid both looked up in amazement. Making his way towards them was a slender old man dressed in an orange and blue tartan fabric tied around one shoulder, and carrying a stick and a small wooden neck-rest-cum-stool in his hand. “Hello. How do you do? My name is Gabriel Lokonyi,” he said, extending a lithe hand. 
Derek hesitated, then reached out and shook the man’s hand. “Derek Strangely.”
“You speak like an Englishman,” said Abdulmajid, coming as close as he dared. “Are you a guide here?” 
“You could say that,” chuckled Gabriel, grinning toothlessly at the two of them while puffing on a clove cigarette. “I’m a palaeontologist. As for my accent, I got that serving in the King’s African Rifles during World War Two.”
“Ah, a war veteran. You have my greatest respect. Abdulmajid is my name.”
“Thank you,” replied Gabriel. 
“I’m curious to know the story behind these stones,” said Derek.
“It’s an observatory,” he replied.
“You see,” laughed Derek. “I knew they served a purpose.”
“Each stone corresponds to a different point on the horizon where seven star clusters rise,” he continued. “Or, should I say, used to rise, in 300 BC.”
“Wow! A two-thousand-year-old observatory…out here in the middle of nowhere. I had no idea such a place existed.”
“Was it the Turkana who made this?” asked Abdulmajid.
“No,” said Gabriel, raising his eyebrows. “They were here when the Turkana arrived. We don’t know much about who made them. Maybe Borana cattle herders from Ethiopia, as they were noted astronomers.”
“Which selected stars do they correspond to?” asked Derek.
“Ah, a fellow astronomer, I see,” said Gabriel, reaching into his tartan and removing a card to show to Derek. It was a simple diagram showing the positions of the pillars transected by long arrows, delineating lines of sight to the points on the horizon where each star rose. “The seven harvest stars from the Borana calendar,” said Gabriel, who then proceeded to point to each object in the sky as he read its name on the card: “Bellatrix, the belt of Orion, Saiph, Sirius, Aldebaran, Pleiades and Triangulum.”
“I can see why they would build an observatory here,” breathed Derek. “There is just so much horizon, bound to an almost perfect semi-sphere of celestial night sky.
“And plenty of fish in the lake,” added Abdulmajid.
“Nile perch, crocodile, hippo, soft-shelled turtles,” laughed Gabriel. “Who wouldn’t want to settle here?”
“There’s something of the supernatural about this lake,” whispered Derek. 
“Anam is a sacred spring,” said Gabriel, seating himself on his little stool, with his back against a pillar, the beginning and the end of all rivers.” He gazed out across the flats to the lake, a distant placid sheet that mirrored the sky in every detail. “It was once a vast oasis, you know, a much wider lake that drained into the River Nile. Eight thousand years ago it would have been lapping at our feet.
Why does it all seem so strangely familiar?” sighed Derek, sitting down beside him. Abdulmajid remained standing.
“All human beings possess a memory of this place,” continued Gabriel. “It’s midpoint on the path our gracile ancestors took out of the heart of Africa. From here you can see everything, both in time and space, and in any direction.” Derek glanced at Gabriel. The twinkle in the old Turkana’s eye suggested a fondness for riddles, and did much to compensate for his complete lack of teeth. “Come,” the old man laughed, “let us make a fire to dry your damp clothes. Are you hungry?”

Pirates is available on Amazon

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"That's Right, She's In The Boat, Only The Boat Is Gone..."

While web surfing for lost gems by Lauren Bacall (may she rest in peace), I stumbled on this review, from a 1951 newspaper, of Bogie and Bacall's performances in Bold Venture.

The couple transcribed the radio series before leaving for the Congo jungle to shoot The African Queen. In that movie, Bogart's portrayal of the rough-and-ready Canadian boat captain Charlie Allnut, for which he won his only Academy Award, is my favorite.

Listening to back-to-back episodes of Bold Venture's raunchy tales of mystery and intrigue, one can hear him developing the character of Allnut.


By John Crosby
Sex, Vioence, And The Bogarts

WHEN LAST heard from, Humphrey Bogart and his wife, Lauren Bacall, accompanied by Katherine Hepburn, were plunging through Africa, making a picture. This must be easily the most picturesque and altogether startling safari on the Dark Continent since David Livingston. I can just see Miss Bacall being established as the white goddess of the lower Congo, Miss Hepburn teaching the natives the proper Hartford (Conn.) accent and Bogie swindling the headhunters out of their firewater.
     They ought to make a film out of the expedition itself, which, I'm sure, would be more interesting than what ever dark purpose Mr. Bogart has in mind. I for one would like to see the expression on a zebra's face when it catches its first glimpse of Miss Hepburn. I'd like to hear Miss Bacall's famous line: "I'm hard to get. Just ask me," rendered in Swahili. Ah well, stop dreaming, Crosby.

BEFORE THEY took off for Africa, the Bogarts transcribed an adventure radio series Bold Venture, which is now on the air in about 150 cities.
     The network have been trying to entice the Bogarts, whose joint sex appeal could probably sell boxcars on the air for years. They turned down the networks in favor of a transcribed series which offers much less prestige, but on the other hand gives the Bogarts far greater freedom. Freedom, for example, to go off to Africa and make pictures while the radio show puts money in the bank over here.
     Bold Venture is not anything that hews out new territory in radio fiction or any other kind of fiction. In fact, if you have ever seen the Bogarts in a picture, you will be pretty well briefed as to their radio show.
     The title stems from the name of Mr. Bogart's boat, which he sails all over the Caribbean getting into one scrape after another. Mr. Bogart, thinly disguised under the name of Slate Shannon, is a rough and tough adventurer open for hire to anyone who has sunken gold or other larceny on his mind.
     Miss Bacall, known on this show as Sailor Duval, occupies the position - now hold on to your chairs here - of Mr. Bogart's "ward and love interest", it says here in a press release. This is the most dubious relationship to be permitted on the air in my memory and I think "ward and love interest" is the most entertaining euphemism to come along in some time.
     Bold Venture opens to the accompaniment of a lot of exotic music which has beads of equatorial sweat all over it. This is to put you in the proper mood for the sex and violence which are to follow.
     A fairly recent and typical program involved a search for sunken gold on an island in Flamingo Cay. During this hunt, Miss Bacall got kidnapped by a trigger-happy, sex-mad college boy whose intentions were strictly dishonorable. This left Mr. Bogart in the clutches of a faithless wife whose feelings toward him were hardly maternal.

BEFORE Mr. Bogart's "ward and love interest" got back into the proper arms, the script had been littered with a couple of corpses, one brutal beating administered by Mr. Bogart and a hurricane. All that and buried gold too. What else can you ask?
     Miss Bacall's sultry, vibrant voice is as effective on radio as it is on the screen. In fact, if it were any more supercharged than it is, it would blow out a couple of tubes. As to Mr. Bogart's sex appeal, you'll have to check with your wife. He and I are on different wave lengths.
     The dialogue employed by these two and by everyone else in the cast is so confoundedly cryptic that you may fall to wondering just who is committing mayhem on whom and why.
     I yearn for the restoration of the simple, decorative sentence which tells the audience who, where, when and why but I don't expect it to return in my lifetime. Bold Venture, in short, is a lot of malarkey, but it is fairly restful malarkey, and it contains the Bogarts, who are about as expert as they come to concealing the deficiencies of a script.
     Have a good time in Africa, Bogarts, and, if you find some time pick me up a stuffed hippopotamus.

© New York Tribune, 1951

Listen online to Treasure on Flamingo Cay.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Return of King Kong

“What is the purpose of your visit to the United States?“ asked the immigration officer at Newark Airport. “I’m a gorilla man,” I proudly replied. Without batting an eyelid she stamped my passport with a B1 business visa, valid for six months. 

I grabbed my bag from the turnstile, stepped on to a fume-choked loading zone, and lit a cigarette. I’d flown thousands of miles from one of the planet’s most remote locations, and was about to enter its most central. I needed a minute to adjust.

Pirates, my second novel, had just been released in the US. Both my editor and agent thought it was a remarkable improvement on my first novel. But the book had yet to inspire more than a handful of reviews. 

Though fun, guiding gorilla safaris in Uganda these past five years had proved counterproductive to generating a readership. Social networks aside, selling books requires an active participation in the marketplace. I needed to personally reach out to my audience. 

My publisher wasn't against the idea of a two-month press tour of the United States. He sent me the money for an air ticket. But he refused to commit to anything more. Boarding my flight in Entebbe, I trusted his support would grow once I sold a few books.

Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / They’ve all come to look for America.” 
- ‘America’ by Simon & Garfunkel 

As my cab climbs an elevated overpass on Interstate 78, Gotham’s full commercial might comes into view: the jagged gleaming skyline, vast industrial complexes, and an endless stream of planes, trains, and automobiles. 

Traffic slows as we approach the Lincoln tunnel. My heart begins to race. Fearing I am about to get crushed in a giant metal compactor, I'm having second thoughts about making my mark here. Driver, turn this taxi around!

How could I possibly have any impact on such a monumental marketplace, amid the pandemonium of all those well-oiled voices vying to be heard? I am punching way above my weight.

We exit the tunnel on 39th Street. Helicopters are hovering overhead, sirens wailing, and the sound of humanity is turned up all the way to eleven. Welcome to anxiety central! 

As we turn north on 10th Avenue, I catch a glimpse of a giant limestone edifice piercing the urban haze behind us. Even today, 83 years after it first opened, the Empire State Building stands head and shoulders above the rest of Midtown’s skyscrapers, and never fails to inspire. 

It's time to unshackle myself from all this self-doubt, seize the moment, ascend to the highest apex, and swat a few preconceived notions out of the sky; I’ll show them what a 21st century gorilla man can achieve in New York City.

“One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” 
- Tom Wolfe

I’m not a stranger to this town. I was six years old when I first visited in 1969 with my family, en route to our new home in Nigeria. My mother's brother Bob was a banker in lower Manhattan, so it served as a convenient stop-over on the many journeys my family would make between Montreal and Africa during the 1970s. 

On Independence Day 1976, standing next to the corner window of Uncle Bob’s 45th-floor office, I watched in awe as a dozen tall ships from all over the world sailed into New York harbor to mark America’s Bicentennial.

One time I came down by road from Toronto, in a car full of drunken reprobates. The last of the campus bars had closed so we set out on a 440 mile road trip to New York City, picking up a Balinese dancer along the way. 

As we drove through the night, radio broadcasts began reporting that a freak snow blizzard was hitting the Big Apple hard. Should we turn back? No fucking way, we’re Canadian. 

When the sun came up that April morning in 1982, New York had been magically transformed into a glittering wonderland of crystal-white snow. Eight to twelve inches had fallen during the night but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. From the Verrazano Narrows bridge, the city looked like one enormous ice sculpture, still steaming from the artist’s blood, sweat and tears.

That weekend, claiming to be experts from north of the border, we made a small fortune digging New Yorkers’ cars out from under the snow.

Between 1994 and 2006 I often visited to raise money for gorillas in the wild. And in late 2009 I spent two months living on the Upper West Side, working on the manuscript for my debut novel, Gorillaland. Since then I’ve published two books. 

So what? Tell someone who gives a shit! That’s what it comes down to in this town. When in New York, ape the natives. Every one of them is struggling to rise up through, or maintain their status in a city that never sleeps. It’s a nightmare. But then I’m a night dancer. Gorilla man will succeed in the concrete jungle.

It’s 7 pm, and the sun is still shining brightly on the Upper West Side, searching for gaps in the money trees that line the back lots of West 77th Street. I’ve been here a month and, as far as book selling is concerned, still not made the slightest dent. 

But I’ve learnt a hell of a lot. No doubt New Yorkers are avid readers, and many of the countless independent bookstores in Manhattan and Brooklyn are up for hosting readings by unknown authors, just not at such short notice. Also literary publicist are paid more than lawyers in this town.

As it turns out, my circumstances and reason for returning to Uganda in July have since evaporated so I will now remain in the US for the duration of my visa, ride down the opposite slope of that steep learning curve I just scaled. Take two...

Hopefully, what happens next will be beyond all expectations.

Greg Cummings is the author of Gorillaland and Pirates, published by Cutting Edge Press, London.