Book Review: The Cheese Monkeys

The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd The Cheese Monkeys is the coming of age story of a teen boy (who we only know by his nickname, “Happy”.) As he enters a midwest state school to study art in the late 50’s.

First off, I’ll admit that I’m a fan of coming of age stories. All the good ones usually follow a protagonist who is struggling to find their way in a world they don’t quiet fit into — that’s just something I related to in adolescence and even sometimes in adulthood. So — generally speaking — I liked the book. If you went to art school or grew up being an outsider, you will likely find something to like about this story. If neither of those apply to you, you probably won’t find it as entertaining… and are likely to see it as a little bizarre or even boring.

The full title of the book is, “The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters” and the storyline has a very “day in the life” feel to it, even though it spans two semesters (as the title would suggest.) Not a whole lot happens in the book, there are some interesting situations, but it really is more about how the narrator (Happy) feels and thinks about the characters around him and how what they do and say shapes him and how he views himself and the world around him. So… who are these characters?

First there is Maybelle, who is what I think of as ‘the Ducky’. Ducky was the best friend character in the 19080’s John Hughes film Pretty in Pink wherein Molly Ringwald spends the entire film fawning over this rich yuppie dude (and eventually falling in love with him) when all the while she had this amazing friend (and could be love interest) by her side. The only difference of course is that Ducky was an interesting character — Maybelle is not.

Next up, Himillsy. Himillsy Dodd is the manic pixie dream girl. A character troupe that has been played to death in the past decade. Back in 2001 when this book was first published, we hadn’t seen Garden State or  500 Days of Summer so if I had read this back then — perhaps I would not have found Himsy so cringe inducing — but alas. I read it in 2012, at the ripe age of 30, so I see this character as trite.

At this stage, I am beginning to think — maybe I didn’t actually like this book?  …Let’s keep going.

In the second semester of Happy, Maybelle and Himilsy’s journey they putz up at registration and are left with only ONE class option left for their studio class, Introduction to Commercial Art. When they arrive to the first day of class, they meet a sign stating, “INTRODUCTION TO GRAPHIC DESIGN: formerly mislabeled Introduction to Commercial Art. Enter the room at EXACTLY 2:25PM -W.S.”

W.S is our final character,  Winter Sorbeck. I like to imagine looks a lot like Don Draper, which is enough to explain Himillsy and Happy’s infatuation with him. Sorbeck introduces them all the Graphic Design, which — at this time in history was a completely new concept that none of these kids had ever heard! However excited any of you got the first time you played with Photoshop or CSS, it’s not even close to having your whole world turned upside down when you learn there is this whole new way of communicating that is evolving – and it is so much bigger than what we’d known as “Commercial Art” and it is something completely different from “Fine Art.” Whoa.

The last half of the book follows the gang through their class with Winter, and his various class assignments. There are moments that flash me back to my own school experience — and some dorky art school references that those of you who are part of the club will find amusing. For the most part, I see this book as being about a kid discovering passion. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, he hadn’t really encountered anything that excited him — and now he’s discovering ideas and people that are driving him nutty with excitement. A pretty relatable experience — being young and excited about things. Being a little terrified as you discover the things that excite you the most and how powerful that feeling of passion can be.

I hear this book is being developed into a movie — which does not really interest me. I found the story not to be about the actual characters, but about Happy’s experience of the characters. It’s his observations and inner-dialog about the things around him that tell the story, not really what is ACTUALLY going on.

I still don’t know, DID I like the book? Maybe it’s not that cut and dry… reading it was an interesting experience.