This is a comic, withering tale of a 359 pound gorilla named Oh and his initiation into the baffling world of human language.

Transported with his father, Macro, from his homeland in the mountains of western Uganda to the campus of a small liberal arts college in southern Indiana, Oh becomes the subject of a revolutionary language-learning  experiment.  In fact, he masters American Sign Language (ASL) with amazing rapidity.

While the director of the Oh Project, Professor Liedlich, searches for a way to publicize Oh’s ability, the gorilla energetically explores the humans around him.  Both the Professor and Oh run into problems, however: Liedlich in getting anyone to believe that Oh is really using ASL, and Oh in understanding the confusing, confused humans.  Take Same Reech, for example, the strangely bitter deaf-mute who is Oh’s “keeper,” or the daftly genteel President of the college and his engagingly profane niece, Pansy.
And then there are Oh’s own puzzling emotions toward Professor Liedlich’s young wife, Nancy.

A series of mysterious, seemingly innocent but frighteningly violent incidents—culminating in an aborted national television broadcast –threatens the Oh Project’s continuation, and Oh’s education takes a dark turn.  Torn between gorillahood and humanhood, between the linguist Liedlich and the deaf-mute Reech, Oh encounters the skewed landscapes of American media, politics, and linguistic games and rivalries.

In the end, Oh figures out the mysteries around him, and his education becomes ours.

This a novel that is both ironic and compassionate, that tightropes between fabulous nightmare and fabulous reality.  It is paradoxical and fluid; it moves from language to silence,  slandering words even as it makes the most of its own.  It is a feast of language—wonderful to read, comic, tragic, and unforgettable.

 

The first major garrulous gorilla was a Uganda-born male, devised by John Goulet, for his wondrously imagined and brilliantly executed roman a clef.  Oh’s Profit.  Goulet’s plot is at least as entertaining as Crichton’s, but there are also issues of much consequence at stake, among them human nature and the nature of language.  The story of Oh is profoundly moving; it grips while it instructs.  Where Amy makes a mockery of authenticity, Oh is true to the essentiality of man.  It is a pity that Crichton’s gorilla is bound to prevail over Goulet’s, and that most people will continue to credit the factitious over the real.  As Oh decides midway through Goulet’s underestimated novel, “from now on he would not willingly misuse language, lest it misuse him.”

— Thomas Sebeok, Times Literary Supplement