As with so many of these books, I can tell you where and at least roughly when I bought my original copy of this novel. I picked it up used at Thompson’s Bookstore in downtown Fort Worth during one of those long-ago, seemingly-endless-at-the-time junior high summers I spent watching old movies on TV, playing sandlot baseball, kissing a girl who was spending the summer with her cousin who lived down the street from me (I wish I could remember her name!), and reading mass quantities of comic books, digest magazines, and paperbacks. I probably read most of it on my parents’ front porch stretched out on one of those folding lounge chairs made from interwoven strips of green and white plastic that left a crosshatch pattern on any bare skin that came in contact with them for very long.
But what about the book, you say, or am I going to spend this entire post waxing nostalgic? Well, I can tell you that I remembered it as one of my favorites from the Tarzan series and one of my favorite Burroughs novels, period, because it was so goofy and over-the-top. When I recently came across a copy of that same Ace edition with the Frazetta cover, I decided it was time to reread it and see how it holds up after all those years.
I’m happy to report that I enjoyed it just as much, if not more, this time around. It’s certainly the funniest Burroughs novel I’ve ever read.
Tarzan himself barely appears in the first half of this book. It’s the story of a group of filmmakers who go to Africa to make a picture about a “lion man”, a boy who is raised by lions and becomes, well, the king of the jungle. This allows Burroughs to make considerable fun of Hollywood, including the casting of a novice actor and champion marathon runner as the Tarzan-like Lion Man. Any resemblance to champion swimmer Johnny Weissmuller I’m sure was completely intended. By this time in his career, Burroughs had already gone through the experience of producing his own Tarzan movie, the serial THE NEW ADVENTURES OF TARZAN, starring Herman Brix (later known as Bruce Bennett), so he’s able to paint a satirical picture of Hollywood executives, directors, and writers, along with the other members of a motion picture company on location.
Not surprisingly, the movie safari runs into a lot of trouble. They’re attacked by hostile natives, betrayed by some of their own, and split up to endure some assorted adventures, as Burroughs employs his usual technique of cutting back and forth between parallel storylines. So far, so good, although other than the humor there’s really not much to distinguish TARZAN AND THE LION MAN from most of the other books in the generally lackluster second half of the Tarzan series.
But then, halfway through, Burroughs comes up with a twist so bizarre that I remembered it vividly more than four decades later, and that plot element, which I can’t even describe without ruining it for any potential readers, dominates the rest of the book. Reading it now, it made slightly more sense to me than it did the first time around, but it still requires a considerable suspension of disbelief. Burroughs makes it work, though, and he’s not content to leave things that way, either, but instead piles on more and more goofiness, throwing in plot twists almost all the way to the end.
And what an ending. The final chapter serves as an epilogue to the book and is one of the best things Burroughs ever wrote. Which is why I issue this warning: if you happen to read the Ace edition of this book, don’t read the foreword by Camille Cazedessus, Jr., which gives away ’way too much of what happens, especially in the end.
I’ll be honest with you. You might find this book stupid, silly, and ridiculous and think that I’m crazy for recommending it. What can I say? It worked for me, otherwise I wouldn’t have remembered it so well and enjoyed it so much 45 years later. It’s really not representative of the Tarzan series, other than TARZAN AND THE FOREIGN LEGION, which has some of the same sort of humor although it’s played much more straight for the most part. But if you want to read a book that’s almost a MAD Magazine version of Tarzan, written by the character’s creator himself, look no further than TARZAN AND THE LION MAN.