Let me start out by saying that Roosevelt’s Beast by Louis Bayard is a very good book. It‘s both smart and wise, and taut and tense, a well-researched novel that is both a work of literature and a solid thriller. So why didn’t I give it more stars?
I am a huge fan of Mr. Bayard, and have been reading him since his first book. In particular I would suggest The Pale Blue Eye and Mr. Timothy, two novels cut from the same cloth as Roosevelt’s Beast. Also, Theodore Roosevelt is one of my true heroes, a man for whom my admiration knows no bounds. His life was so varied and interesting, and lived with such brio and passion that reading about him makes even some one as laid back as me want to go out and grab life and suck the marrow from its bones. So it would seem like the stars have aligned to bring me a book over which I would drool. Therein lies the problem. Perhaps. A case of expectations that is perhaps a bit too high.
Roosevelt’s Beast also deals with high expectations, since the book’s main protagonist is Kermit Roosevelt, Theodore’s son, who never lived up to the expectations set by his father, which is entirely understandable. The novel is set during the expedition led by the Roosevelt’s into the backwaters of the rain-for the origin of the Amazon. During the trip Kermit becomes increasingly aware of his Father’s deteriorating condition, both physically and mentally, as the expedition begins to unravel in the unforgiving climate of the Amazon Basin. All of this is conveyed with considerable power by Mr. Bayard as he contrast the physic world of the two men with the physical challenges that they f ace as they limp on towards their seemingly impossible conclusion. During one particularly grueling episode the Roosevelt’s become separated from the expedition, and are found by an obscure primitive tribe, who are being hunted by a monster that may or may not be supernatural. Living with this tribe is a woman who is not a native, and speaks Portuguese, and through her the tribe enlists the Roosevelt’s aid in killing the beast.
Now all of this is laid out in harrowing detail that practically makes you feel like you are dripping with sweat and stinging from the bite of various no-see-ums. Both Roosevelt’s are living breathing characters, and Luz is affecting. The plot however takes a strange psychological turn that I cannot reveal without spoiling everything, that was consistent with some of the book’s themes, seems somehow disappointing, and makes the latter section of the book a rather heavy slog, as the adventure and excitement are replaced with a kind of lingering dread. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to like in this book, and it kept me riveted for most of its length, but I wasn’t quite satisfied. It’s entirely possible that it was my fault for having such high expectations going in, but I guess that Mr. Bayard wouldn’t mind that too much.