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, and the challenges of writing historical fiction about Teddy are particularly formidable. After all, that chamber of our national pantheon is guarded by a number of fine biographies, including Edmund Morris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy. What’s even more daunting, any would-be novelist interested in creating a fresh version of Roosevelt must compete with the version that Roosevelt left of himself in more than 40 of his own books. Given the man’s penchant for autobiography, writers of historical fiction would seem to be stuck between creating a pale version of Roosevelt’s own work or a counterfactual burlesque.
Fortunately, Charyn has found a path all his own — neither a substitute for biography nor a violation of it. The Teddy 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. As Henry Adams once said, “All Roosevelt’s friends know that his restless and combative energy was more than abnormal,” and that’s the dynamo whom Charyn has spun into being.
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 five dozen names listed in the novel’s dramatis personae offer a handy guide to who’s who, but those terse descriptions will hardly bring the uninitiated up to speed.
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 — nicknamed “Brave Heart” — 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 strike their servants,” Teddy notes with pride. “It was considered vile.”
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. The party thugs think he’s a rube, and he’s willing to play the part — complete with his gold pince-nez and cylindrical trousers — but before long, he’s getting in fistfights with bartenders who want their liquor licenses lowered and political rivals who want this principled reformer driven out of town. “I rose like a rocket,” Teddy says, in a voice perfectly calibrated between egotism and amusement. (This is an entirely one-sided version, of course, though Teddy acknowledges periodically that others considered him despotic, crazy, desperate for fame.) He goes after child labor, police corruption and the whole gamut of criminality infecting New York. “ROOSEVELT ON THE RAMPAGE,” the headlines scream, giving him his first taste of the symbiotic role the press will play in his future reform efforts. It’s an extraordinary beginning for a man who will one day put the United States on the world stage and reshape the 20th century.
But Charyn restricts himself to the decades before an assassin killed President William McKinley and thrust Vice President Roosevelt into the White House. These are, as the title says, the adventures of the Cowboy King, which means 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. Despite the luxury into which he was born, Roosevelt was famously rustic. Equipped with a rocking chair, a few dozen books and a rubber bath, he once said, “I do not see how any one could have lived more comfortably.” Charyn channels that spirit in all its original exuberance. “I hunted cougars,” Teddy says, “howled with the wolves.” He also works his own ranch, chases down desperadoes and develops his interest in conserving America’s natural grandeur. “It was our sacred duty,” he says, “to preserve the forests and an abundance of forest creatures.”
Oh, what happened to you, Republican Party?
One of the melancholy pleasures of this novel is the contrast it continually presents to our current president, another bigger-than-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 leave his position as assistant secretary of the Navy and help lead a band of volunteers — the Rough Riders — to Cuba during the Spanish-American War. (Asthma? Poor eyesight? Bone spurs? Pshaw — there is no stopping this man!)
Charyn provides little historical context, but he drums up the personal drama of war in all its absurdity and horror. Even knowing that Roosevelt survived, 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 should have been shot off Little Texas a hundred times, but we took the heights,” he says, “and I’m still here.”
Indeed, thanks to Charyn, he is, along with fantastic cameos from J.P. Morgan; Buffalo Bill Cody; Roosevelt’s pet cougar, Josephine, and many others.
The reviewer’s handbook says 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-the-century dime novel, the cover shows Roosevelt standing tall in the Badlands with Josephine straining her leash. It strikes just the right tone, as does this delightful novel.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com. On Jan. 14 at 7 p.m., Jerome Charyn will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
By Jerome Charyn
Liveright. 283 pp. $26.95