Theodore Roosevelt was only 50 years old and immensely popular at the end of his presidency, but four years later, he broke his promise not to seek another term and campaigned for the office again, this time as a third-party candidate. He not only lost the election, he was bitterly criticized by many former supporters, who accused him of splitting the Republican Party and getting Democrat Woodrow Wilson elected instead.

It must have seemed like a good time to get out of Dodge.

Still famously energetic, despite having a would-be assassin’s bullet lodged in his chest, in 1913, Roosevelt accepted an invitation to join the Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon in an expedition to the headwaters of the Rio da Duvida, which they hoped to trace all the way to the Amazon River. That hellish journey was described by Roosevelt in his 1914 memoir, “Through the Brazilian Wilderness,” and was recently recounted in Candice Millard’s “The River of Doubt” (2005). Within weeks, T.R. was so debilitated by infection and fever that he had to be cared for night and day by his son Kermit, whose devotion, physical courage and determination saved his father’s life.

This “whole misbegotten adventure,” with all its miseries and hardship, forms the basis of “Roosevelt’s Beast,” the new novel by Washington writer Louis Bayard. Imagined from Kermit’s point of view, the irrationality of the trek is clear. “A small band of bedraggled white men, outnumbered by both their porters and their trunks, hustling northward down a twisting ribbon of black water, with an air of deep intention. Looking for something, but what?”

The idea was to put Amazonia’s terra incognita on the map, but there was a terrible price to pay for this knowledge. Men died, and Bayard describes the toll on survivors with wonderful dry wit. “With his fingers, [Kermit] interrogated the sores on each of his legs: all the garden-variety bruises that, through infection, had acquired ideas above their station.”

"Roosevelt's Beast" by Louis Bayard (Henry Holt)

The plot arrives when — wet, sick, starving, exhausted and lost — Kermit and his father become separated from their comrades. They are taken prisoner by a band of Brazilian natives whose prior contact with the world beyond the forest is limited to an encounter with a missionary whose daughter still lives among them. She tells the two Americans they’ll be permitted to leave when and if they can find and kill a beast that leaves no spoor, apart from the eviscerated, flayed, fleshless bodies of its victims.

What follows is a mystery in the Arthur Conan Doyle tradition, had Sherlock and Watson been masochistic enough to volunteer for this dreadful trek. Consider this exchange between T.R. and Kermit:

“So we know our Beast has the strength of at least two jaguars
. . . . What else can we say?

“Very little.”

“I will go you one better and answer, Nothing else. . . . An act of great savagery took place on this very spot, and yet the perpetrator of the act left virtually no trace. It made no cry . . . it left no tracks. I repeat: It left no tracks.”

If that kind of dialogue appeals to you, the middle of “Roosevelt’s Beast” will be fun. It’s a whatdunit, not a whodunit, and I won’t reveal the solution, except to tell you that Bayard calls his novel “a psychological fantasy built out of historical events.” For me, the bracketing psychology was far more engaging than the central fantasy. Bayard gives us a compassionate, unsentimental portrait of a son who would forever live in the shadow of a colossal father. Kermit struggled with familial depression that seemed darker for its contrast with T.R.’s relentless, sunny optimism and blithe self-confidence.

And then there is this throwaway paragraph about Cousin Eleanor Roosevelt. “Until this moment, Kermit had never considered the possibility of Eleanor having a father. Or a mother. He had assumed that she’d come into the world exactly as she was now: tall, clumsy, unparented, a train of pity dragging after her.” To my disappointment, there was nothing more of the future first lady, but moments like that — seen in flashbacks to Kermit’s childhood — salt the fantasy and kept me interested as I began to understand the title’s clever intent.

I came to this novel knowing nothing about Kermit Roosevelt, but this portrayal is memorable. Weeks after reading the book, I still can’t help wishing that Bayard had taken us on Kermit’s real journey as that resourceful, courageous, accomplished man made his way from his father’s shadow to the self-inflicted gunshot wound that ended a remarkable, if tragic, life.

And if Bayard ever writes about Eleanor Roosevelt, I’m in.

Russell is the author of five novels including “The Sparrow” and “Doc.” “Epitaph” is due out in the spring of 2015.


By Louis Bayard

Henry Holt. 299 pp. $27