Roosevelt’s Beast. By Louis Bayard. Henry Holt, 2014. 299 pages.
In January, 1914, Theodore Roosevelt, his son, Kermit, a renowned Brazilian explorer named Cândido Rondon, and their crew set off from the tiny, jumbled settlement of Tapirapoan to map the course of the Rio da Dúvida, the River of Doubt.
It was an act both perfectly fitting the former President’s endless energy and yet also perfectly mad. He was, after all, 55 years old, two years past a failed run to recapture the White House, and casting about for something to do.
Kermit was an even less likely candidate for the trip.
Though he was a fine soldier as well as a hunter and a skilled engineer, he preferred French poetry to adventure and was engaged to be married shortly. The expedition seemed at times miserably ill-prepared, yet off they went into the Amazon.
To this point the novel hews closely to the actual events, as admirably recorded by Candice Millard in her book The River of Doubt. But Bayard, author most recently of The School of Night and Pale Blue Eye, does not wait long before veering from history to something far darker.
The question that historians cannot answer is how the expedition, which travelled through the territory of the Cinta Larga, a tribe not known to welcome strangers, managed to emerge on the other side.
Roosevelt’s Beast provides the story, and a compellingly readable one it is. Pale Blue Eye centered on Edgar Allan Poe, and here Bayard draws from the master’s skill with the fantastic and the macabre, with nods to Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness along the way.
Roosevelt’s Beast is neither history nor natural history, despite Bayard’s evident love of the archive and his long-ago stint as a writer for the World Wildlife Fund. But he takes elements of both and twists them with linguistic and narrative gifts of a high order.
Perhaps the most important twist of all: the emotional heart of the novel is not the Colonel, as the former President liked to be called, but his son, fragile yet resilient, with a good bit of TR’s legendary backbone but a host of demons as well.
As the expedition leaves civilization behind, and Bayard leaves the historical record behind as well, it is clear we are in the hands of a master story teller. So enjoy the ride.