Charyn dreams up raucous, entertaining Teddy Roosevelt
Who wouldn’t want to grow old like Jerome Charyn? Now in his 80s, the prolific writer seems ever more daring. With “The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson” (2010), he snuck into the bedroom of the Belle of Amherst and felt the palpitations of her erotic heart. Four years later, he reanimated Lincoln’s sainted bones in a novel called “I Am Abraham.” And now, with “The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King,” he scales the mountainous personality of Theodore Roosevelt, who died 100 years ago this month.
Few novelists would tread on such hallowed ground. After all, that chamber of our national pantheon is guarded by a number of fine biographies, including Edmund Morris’ Pulitzer Prizewinning trilogy. What’s even more daunting, any would-be novelist must compete with the version that Roosevelt left of himself in more than 40 of his own books.
Fortunately, Charyn has found a path all his own — neither a substitute for biography nor a violation of it. The Roosevelt who narrates “The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King” is a whirlwind of activity, a man so caught up in the escapades of his intrepid life that he can’t always be bothered with details.
For fans of Roosevelt, this is tremendous fun. But readers unfamiliar with his life and the political history of the late 19th century should be forewarned: There will be no coddling on this breakneck tour.
The story opens in panicked gasps. Little asthmatic Teddy spies a werewolf at the foot of his bed. The boy’s life might have been snuffed out early if not for the unorthodox response of his heroic father, who prescribed cigars to his 5-year-old son and took him on wild carriage rides through the most dangerous slums of New York. It was from this man that Teddy acquired his deep sympathy for “the ragged, the lonely, and the lame” that would later guide his military and political crusades. But Charyn never lets us forget that this concern for the less fortunate rested upon a secure family fortune.
The Roosevelts did not dirty themselves in New York’s political machine, either, but Teddy is determined to be the exception. At 23, he strolls into the district Republican Club over a saloon near Fifth Avenue and announces his intention to become an assemblyman. Before long, he’s getting in fistfights with bartenders who want their liquor licenses lowered. “I rose like a rocket,” Teddy says, in a voice per- fectly calibrated between egotism and amusement. He goes after child labor, police corruption and the whole gamut of criminality infecting New York.
Charyn restricts himself to the decades before an assassin killed President William McKinley and thrust Vice President Roosevelt into the White House. We follow this irrepressible young man out to the Badlands of the Dakota Territory with his silver stirrups and a Bowie knife from Tiffany’s.
One of the melancholy pleasures of this novel is the contrast it continually presents to our current president, another biggerthan-life man of wealth and privilege but otherwise a grim opposite of the brave warrior, the curious scholar, the principled legislator. That contrast is never more striking than in the novel’s central adventure: Roosevelt’s audacious decision to help lead a band of volunteers to Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
Charyn provides little historical context, but he drums up the personal drama of war in all its absurdity and horror.
You’ll be gripped by the suspense of the chaotic Battle of San Juan Hill.
The famous Cowboy Colonel, dressed in his Brooks Brothers tunic with 12 extra pairs of glasses, charges through the smoke on his horse, Little Texas.
I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I have to offer some praise for this unusually witty dust jacket. Designed to look like a turn-of-thecentury dime novel, the cover shows Roosevelt standing tall in the Badlands with his pet cougar, Josephine, straining her leash. It strikes just the right tone, as does this delightful novel.