Charyn dreams up rau­cous, en­ter­tain­ing Teddy Roo­sevelt

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Palm Beach (Sunday) - - Travel & Life - By Ron Charles The Washington Post

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.

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