Roosevelt’s Beast

Written by Louis Bayard
Review by Bethany Latham

1914. Teddy Roosevelt is a Bull Moose without a cause. Defeated for re-election, he redirects his boundless energy into an expedition to chart the Rio da Dúvida (River of Doubt), a 1,000-mile expanse of God-only-knows-what in the dark heart of the Amazonian jungle. His son, Kermit, reluctantly accompanies him. Things go from bad to worse when the Roosevelts are captured by natives and given a daunting task: hunt the unseen Beast that has been preying on the tribe, leaving behind only the hollowed-out husks of its victims.

This novel is hard to pigeonhole; it’s an Amazonian adventure, rife with the requisite daily hardship. It’s also a horror/mystery thriller: the Roosevelts perform Edwardian CSI to draw a bead on the harrowing Beast. But primarily, it’s an introspective character study – not, as one might think, of Teddy, but of Kermit, his internal conflict, the nature of evil and emptiness, and his relationship with a larger-than-life father. Bayard’s characterization is admirable; one feels Teddy’s boisterous charisma while still understanding how he appears to Kermit: an aging lion burdening a son whose sole purpose is to give the great man “scope.” Despite instances of repetition, Bayard’s prose is solid and evocative, creating an immersive, heart-thudding atmosphere and pitch-perfect dialogue. Teddy’s staunch principles figure largely: “Civilization is not a place, Kermit… it is a practice, a way of living one’s life – meeting one’s death, if necessary.” What the Roosevelts encounter in the jungle is beyond Teddy’s ken, though somehow… expected by Kermit, and will affect both for the rest of their lives. As Teddy omits the events from the official expedition journals, he pronounces: “What happened out there belongs out there. The jungle has it; let the jungle keep it.” But the Beast will not be contained…

An absorbing, frightening, thought-provoking literary thriller – highly recommended.