In Roosevelt’s Beast, local novelist Louis Bayard continues his wonderful jaunt through history following the footsteps of other writers. Joining Dickens (Mr. Timothy), Poe (The Pale Blue Eye), and Christopher Marlowe (The School of Night) is Theodore Roosevelt—a prolific author, adventurer, and President—who goes on expedition to the Amazon in the novel with his son Kermit. Here’s a conversation with Bayard about the jungle, genetics, and the inevitability of Joseph Conrad.
What was your “elevator pitch” for this book?
I described it as “Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Heart of Darkness.’ ” When you’re writing about the jungle, you can’t avoid Conrad.
When did you realize you’d be telling Kermit’s story, not his father’s?
I was drawn to Kermit because his story is so untold. All I could find is that he was “a troubled soul.” Every family has that person who can’t seem to adjust to reality. That’s why I felt it was important to begin with Kermit at his end, as a failed Army officer shuttled off to a post in Anchorage, to see that he never recovered from his ordeal.
Kermit had some burdens of inheritance.
Yes, his uncle Elliott is a terrifying specter in my book, a man caught between depression and alcohol, the only antidepressant they had at that time. Kermit also has his father’s influence. Teddy nearly died on their Amazon trip, which would have forced Kermit to preside over a burial. There was a big family belief: “The tree is buried where it falls.” Talk about a burden!
The thread of parenthood runs strongly through your books. Why?
Maybe simply because I’m a son. I’m obsessed with the way we’re all mirrors of our parents. It’s a complex braid that never resolves. Top that as fodder for fiction.
This article appears in the April 2014 issue of Washingtonian.