BOOK: Roosevelt’s Beast by Louis Bayard (2014)

beastI’m a huge fan of Louis Bayard’s writing and storytelling — two of his novels, in fact, so enthralled me I remember exactly where I was when I finished them (The Pale Blue Eye and The Black Tower).  When I saw he had a new novel out — a fictionalized spin on a true story I had read a non-fiction book about and loved a few years ago (River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard), I thought, man, somebody up there likes me. . .

Or. . . perhaps not so much? I’ll try not to take it personally.

Both books (this one and the non-fiction River of Doubt) are about the trip to the Amazonian jungle Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit took just after Roosevelt lost his bid for reelection in 1913.  Joining up with Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon, the plan was to explore the headwaters of the Rio da Duvida, which they intended to trace all the way to the Amazon River.  In the real story, Teddy becomes so sick a few weeks into the trip with a mysterious infection and fever he can barely move on his own, forcing Kermit to to care for him day and night — ultimately saving his father’s life.

In Bayard’s fictionalized version, Kermit and Teddy, just beginning to fall ill, get separated from the group and are kidnapped up by a local tribe.  Living with the tribe after being kidnapped herself at an early age is a young woman, the daughter of a missionary, who is the only person able to communicate with the two men.  She translates the tribe’s directives: they’ll be permitted to leave only if they can find and kill the terror-inducing monster who has been brutally attacking and murdering their people.  The tribesmen themselves are too afraid to go after it themselves, but T.R. and Kermit, avid hunters their entire lives, agree right away to the deal, believing the tribe is just a bunch of superstitious fools being spooked by some boring ol’ jaguar. It’ll take them a day to catch and kill it and then they’ll be on their way home — no big. I mean, obviously it’s something like a jaguar, right? There’s no such thing as monsters, for pity’s sake.

Their self-assuredness falters fast, though, when they get their first look at a victim — eviscerated, flayed, and essentially licked clean from the inside out, with not a single track to be found around the body.  It’s as if the creature came down from sky, hovered to kill, then flew off again without a trace. They’ve never seen anything like it before, but promise to fulfill their part of the deal so they can get the hell out of there.

As the two men struggle to figure out what is really going on, a romance between Kermit and the young lady begins to develop, and we also get a very intriguing look inside Kermit’s mind (he’s sort of the narrator, though it’s not a first-person narrative).  This is the part I enjoyed the most about the story — the characters, their insights, and their relationships.  Kermit Roosevelt was an interesting guy, stuck playing second fiddle to the more famous Roosevelts in his life, which, coupled with bad genes, led to a lifetime of crushing depression and alcoholism that ultimately drove him to commit suicide at age 54.  Though this work was fiction, it was clear Bayard had done a lot of research into the two men’s relationship, and I enjoyed the dynamic very much.

The problem: Bayard is famous — to me, anyway — for writing fairly serious fiction featuring historical people or characters and typically a mystery-type plot.  The Black Tower, for example, is about Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s son Louis-Charles, as well as the notorious Eugène François Vidocq, career criminal and (ironically) the first director of France’s Sûreté Nationale.  His novel The Pale Blue Eye, another detective story, features a young Edgar Allen Poe as its central sleuth, and his book Mr. Timothy is an exploration of what kind of young man little Tim Cratchit, from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, might have grown into.

[SPOILER ALERT! Stop reading now if you plan to pick this one up!]

For that reason, what I was expecting with this novel was something rooted fairly firmly in reality. Roosevelt’s Beast, however, takes what could have been a rich fish-out-of-water story exploring the superstitions of an Amazonian tribe and the mythos of a famous American family, and turns it into total hokum instead.  Which would’ve been fine if the hokum were interesting, but it was more cheesy and ridiculous than gripping and thought-provoking.  I can see that it was at least partly an attempt to provide an explanation for Kermit’s suicide, but of all the fascinating ways his death could’ve been explored, this is the least fascinating one I can imagine.  Instead of feeling authentic, it mostly just felt ludicrous — a waste of an otherwise interesting character.  And what a weird veering from the norm for Bayard, too. While I’m the first person to offer kudos to an established author trying something new, the new thing still has to earn those kudos by not sucking.  Not earned here.  Not at all.

That said, though the silly plot was a major distraction from the novel’s strengths, there were still many strengths to this novel.  The writing is great, as usual, the characters are great, as usual, and the setting is almost a beast all its own.  Some of the subplots, especially about the young woman’s life with the tribe, were very authentic in feel and expression.  Though I was disappointed overall, I didn’t HATE this novel. I read the whole thing and I was entertained.  My problems were largely problems of expectations, I suspect.  I still very much love Louis Bayard.  I just hope this isn’t the start of a new kind of trend for his writing.  Because, honestly?  I really, really liked the old kind of trend for his writing.

If you’ve never read any Bayard, I’d suggest The Pale Blue Eye as a great starting place, by the way.  Good old fashioned detectin’. Save this one for last, if you get around to it at all.

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