Review: Patrick Parks on Man in a Cage, a novel by Patrick Nevins

In novels about Africa, the continent often serves as a moral landscape where imperialistic intruders degrade, defile, and attempt to destroy the cultures of people who have lived there for thousands of years. The fervent missionaries, unscrupulous capitalists, ambitious anthropologists of those books may not share a single reason for their interventions, but all do share a sense of superiority and entitlement, the right of the “civilized” to rule the “primitive.” Add to that collection Patrick Nevins’ Man in a Cage, which fictionalizes the exploits of Richard Garner, a self-styled naturalist who, in the late 1800s, travels to Gabon to study primates in their native habitat and prove to the larger world that they had a language all their own.

Garner’s methodology, as indicated in the novel’s title, is to construct a steel cage in the jungle from which he could observe gorillas and chimpanzees gamboling among the trees and thereby learn how they communicated. Plans to utilize a phonograph to record their vocalizations are stymied when a series of delays in its arrival (it, in fact, never does arrive) leave Garner to create phonetic spellings and to make notes describing their behavior. For the most part, his days are spent in tedious routine and hopeful anticipation:

I spent the remainder of the late afternoon wishing for the appearance of anything simian, but for a couple of hours nothing, save a few rodents came in view of my cage. Then, just before evening began, a disturbance in a tree caught my attention. A group of vervets playing above brought a smile to my face … I was uplifted by my confidence that over the next several months of living at Fort Gorilla, I would not only see chimpanzees, but also record their voice and begin the earnest study of their language.

But Garner’s research, wildly popular with the general public, is not viewed with the same enthusiasm by the fusty scientific societies he appeals to for support and acknowledgement. Viewed as an amateur with more ambition that ability, more a dreamer than a realist, Garner exhibits a similar view toward his detractors:

… I became acquainted with many fine naturalists—though I want to qualify that statement: They were fine observers and thinkers, but they owed a great debt to the men who collected the specimens they studied. Yet the collectors were merely footnotes—if even that—in their lectures … They struck me then as a league of weak-willed armchair scientists to whom I owed nothing.

Creating this sort of narrator, one whose self-absorption and self-aggrandizement often makes him less than likeable, is a calculated risk on the part of the author. By Nevins’ own description in the book’s acknowledgements that Garner’s “greatest legacy might be inspiring Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle” could indicate a degree of irony in the storytelling, but it’s not there; Garner continues to the last page of the novel declaring himself a misunderstood pioneer, one whose methods were ridiculed by men afraid to venture themselves into the deep jungle as he did.

Man in a Cage could be considered merely historical fiction about a self-deluded marginal figure were not for Nevins’ adopting a point of view reflective of a privileged and prejudiced white man. He leaves civilization to embark upon his journey, but civilization is not left behind. A mile or so from Garner’s camp is a Catholic mission, inhabited by monks and nuns and frequented by traders of all stripes as well. In charge of the place is Father Buleon, whose own scientific inquiries into the behavior of apes are void of the Darwinian ideas that fuel Garner’s efforts. The conflict over whether or not primates are capable of language is just one element of a much larger dogmatic rift between the two men.

While Buleon sees the African people—whom he refers to as les enfants, despite their ages—as potential converts, Garner’s view is much more nuanced and ambivalent. A child of the American South, the son of the owner of enslaved people who had himself fought on the side of the Confederacy, he barely escapes being an apologist when he states, “I had long held Emancipation responsible for my family’s decline, so had looked upon it with great bitterness. But the truth was that since coming of age, I had not suffered any ill effects from it.”

In Africa, he is exposed to a different kind of Black person and is surprised by their intelligence and character. At one point, responding to the assessment of a trader who declares one of the Nkomi tribesman not only strong and dutiful but smart, as well, Garner says, “Yes, for his race.” Elsewhere in the novel, Garner, who is accompanied in the jungle by a Olanga, a Nkomi youth, and Moses, a young chimpanzee, sees the two of them listening to him play his banjo and muses, “I know not what effect the alien melodies had on them, for they remained in the tree they’d planted themselves in, whiling away the time picking at their teeth.” That troubling observation is enough to cast doubts on Garner’s humanity, but it is not the only incidence of his narrow-mindedness.

Garner’s attitude toward women is equally chauvinistic. His wife, who sees his endeavor as a foolish hobby, is treated solicitously:

Maggie is burdened by the unfortunate feminine trait of heating and cooling much too quickly, so when I sat down beside her, I was not surprised at her reaching out to take my hand in hers. Her eyes—little emeralds is what I thought of them—met mine sweetly.

Nevins’ decision to imbue Garner with the white-male-centric attitudes of his time is, like his rendering of the narrator as egoistic, a tricky one. The novel is compelling, well-written, and engaging, but how will an audience react to a modern-day writer’s use of outdated and reprehensible views not only of race but of gender as well? Were this not a good book, one worth reading, it might be easy to dismiss it as being out of touch, but Nevins states in a foreword to the novel that he realizes the language and ideas may be offensive, adding “I hope readers will find Man in a Cage an indictment” of society’s past sins, not a perpetuation. 

Man in a Cage, by Patrick Nevins. Malarkey Books, August 2022. 342 pages. $18.00, paper.

Patrick Parks is author of a novel, Tucumcari, and has had fiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews appear or forthcoming in a number of places, including Bridge Eight, Full Stop, Southeast Review, Six Sentences, Another Chicago Magazine, The Chattahoochee Review, OxMag, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere (the adverb, not the publication). He is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, a recipient of two Illinois Arts Council artist grants, and lives with his wife and requisite cats near Chicago. More at

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