The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King
In so much of American history—or in so much of America’s interpretation of its own history—there is an air of pulp fiction. In retellings of the lives and doings of grand, almost mythological figures who shaped this country, the real and fantastical commingle, overlap, become inseparable. It is this fundamental inseparability that makes Jerome Charyn’s novel about the life and times of Theodore Roosevelt so much fun to read.
With its dimestore-comic cover design, The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King is presented as a kind of pulp pastiche of the 26th president’s thoroughly inimitable life. The book, which begins with Roosevelt’s childhood and follows him to the cusp of his presidency, leans hard on the real (and in many cases, likely inflated) events of the man’s life. But it is also a surprisingly poignant assessment of smaller, more universally human moments.
Two-thirds of the novel is set during the early and middle years of Roosevelt’s life—the years he fought in the sewer-dirty wars of New York City politics. Here, Charyn does his most impressive scene-setting work, placing the reader in the heart of late 19th-century Manhattan. The sense of place and the fundamentally ugly nature of big-city politics are consistent and convincing. By focusing on this part of Roosevelt’s life, rather than his Rough Rider days or his time as president, the bulk of the book works very well, and makes for a much more kinetic and less well-worn story.
Charyn has a gift for the unexpected, both linguistically and narratively: A snake wraps itself around a boy’s arm “like a living bandage,” and President McKinley has “the soft, sunken heart of a chocolate éclair.” The most emotionally resonant relationship in the book is between Roosevelt and Josephine, his pet mountain lion.
Deftly, Charyn interweaves what is real and invented about Roosevelt’s life, and the result is at once surprising and very entertaining.
This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.