At Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville, Ind., at the bottom of a steady paved slope down which zoo-goers clop and struggle, in the shade of various high-boughed trees (elms, probably), rests a forlorn-looking boat. It is anchored for eternity in a shallow pool of chlorinated water that reflects the vibrant shades of paint—sky blue, red, yellow, maroon—along its hull and cabin.
Built at the shrewdly high-flying and Barnum-esque behest of then-Zoo Director Gilmore Haynie in 1933, the boat—a replica of the Santa Maria, considerately reconstructed at one-third scale—housed 20 rhesus macaques, give or take, from the day of its christening until some time in the late 1990s or early 2000s, when even the reluctant taste of this Midwestern city deemed the whole monkeys-on-a-boat spectacle a little too cruel, a little outré.
Nowadays the pool around the ship is filled with loud gas-powered bumper boats. Children scoot about in the variously handicapped vessels, some of which, once accelerated, will keep on speeding until the gas runs out, and others of which, beset by jammed rudders, turn in endless circles despite the tiny hands that jerk at their steering wheels, so that their queasy pilots must be rescued from their purgatorial whirligigs by a long pole, tipped with a hook, wielded by a teenage attendant.
The Monkey Ship, I had thought, was always my little secret. An obscure Midwestern curio, an irreducible spectacle, a garish consumerist plea—it was all of these things, and for that reason, a little funny. But it was also something to be ashamed of. It said something about the incurious psyche of the average American, who would have been unsatisfied by a mere historical replica or by monkeys, alone; who would pay to see, however, an arbitrary combination of the two.
It was a thing that by pure noteworthiness deserved to go unnoted. And so it was infinitely strange to find it touched upon in, of all books, “Lolita.”
Midway through the novel, when Humbert Humbert is carting his Lo back and forth across the United States in a movement that is half road trip, half flight, a few pages devolve into a catalogic longueur of sights seen, of townships touched. It is an Americana carousel, including, among countless obscure stops, Mount Rushmore, Crater Lake, The Corn Palace in South Dakota—and then, like a bolt from the blue, on page 158 of my annotated edition: “A zoo in Indiana where a large troop of monkeys lived on a concrete replica of Christopher Columbus’ flagship.”
When I read this it was as though my eyes, carelessly shifting back and forth like fingertips along the stem of an unrecognized bloom, had stumbled upon a thorn. I paused, of course, and felt strangely impaled, this précis of an obscure phenomenon—hitherto, I’d assumed, known only to me—whinging back from the past, wielded now, by another hand, like a knife. I flipped to the back of the book and read the corresponding annotation: “[T]he zoo exists, in Evansville, Indiana. Its monkeys—kept out-of-doors on the ship from April to November—continue to be the zoo’s most popular attraction.”
A number of questions occurred to me. I wondered whether Nabokov himself had visited the zoo, or whether he’d gotten all he’d needed from a postcard, perhaps purchased at a yard sale. But more importantly, I asked myself: What was my monkey ship doing in this tawdry tale? And why?
Without diving too formlessly into the outsize pool of literary theorizing, it seems to me there’s an incredible effect enveloped in this appearance of the monkey ship—and it’s of course incredibly proper that it should be a hidden effect, that it should go entirely unnoticed by nearly all readers (V.N. and H.H. having loved, to a fault, their games, their oily allusions).
I’d always hated that particular section of “Lolita;” it goes on and on, vacillating between ubiquity (Mount Rushmore) and ignominy (The Monkey Ship), seeming, at first blush, merely an opportunity for Nabokov to demonstrate his all-knowingness, his adoptive fluency in the superficial language of Americana. And yet, I had to admit, on reconsideration, that he’d stabbed at me, that he’d struck out from the page—and I’d been startled, because it seemed he’d been present in a private place. It was the effect of a terrible, of a horrifying insinuation.
To get the full effect of this reference to the monkey ship, I had only to recall a few summers ago, when I’d gone with my brother and his two children to visit the zoo, and their eyes, ineluctably, had been drawn to The Monkey Ship, now missing its hirsute inhabitants. The boys went down and plopped themselves into bumper boats, while I rested my arms on the high wall around the pool and watched them. I realized, looking back, that anywhere in the crowd around us could have been a creep—a dolorous yet dapper H.H. sleuthing or standing stiff, obvious or obscure, yet undeniably there, right where he shouldn’t be, where the common law of safety in obscurity had always promised he couldn’t be.
But you can’t look about yourself in memories. You can only begin to suspect, and then to worry about, all the things you might have missed.