The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King
by Jerome Charyn
Chilled, chilled the blood when the cover of Jerome Charyn’s The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King first comes into view. Framed as the cover of an old 15-cent comic book, the dust jacket shows a gloved and booted figure striking a heroic pose and holding a mountain lion on a leash, and there are minor problems (the mountain lion is the size of a house cat and, oddly, has a prehensile tail) and one major problem: the heroic figure isn’t Theodore Roosevelt, it’s Robin Williams playing Theodore Roosevelt in Night at the Museum. The combination, a superhero figure on a comic book cover, immediately suggests burlesque, the deadliest enemy of both history and historical fiction. The mind flashes to books like The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy (by the author writing under the name Jacopo della Quercia), where historical characters are hauled on-stage and set through a series of buffooneries of the type the author probably assigns to old-timey folke from black-and-white photos from a century ago.
Theodore Roosevelt already tempts in that direction. He intentionally crafted himself to do so, and most of his contemporaries and most of posterity have gladly played along. Robin Williams was never cast as William McKinley in a movie. There will never be a William McKinley movie. Alternately, there’s Mount Rushmore.
The blood warms a bit at the sight of Jerome Charyn’s name. For half a century, this has been an unpredictable, unclassifiable, and above all exactingly smart author, a restless polymath who’s always given the strong impression that he’s his own toughest editor. Barring the dark sorcery of the infamous phenomenon known as “late style,” this is surely the first author who’d be bored or irritated by a whole novel about the fictitious creature on the cover of The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King, particularly when the real-life figure was more interesting than any such creature could be.
Instead of a travesty, Charyn here gives readers the very first truly terrific TR novel (his unforgettable cameos in Caleb Carr’s The Alienist not quite counting, since he’s not the star). It’s a breathless and at times very strange novel, sharing its odd kaleidoscopic quality with Charyn’s The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, for instance.
The conceit here is that Roosevelt’s life in all its outsized stages prior to his sudden and unexpected rise to the office of President of the United States was a kind of long and often carefree adventures. He was a rancher in the Badlands, a mystery to his fellow ranchers who had no idea what to make of this tough little Yankee who “writes about birds and battleships,” a man transforming:
I’d acquired a roaring red mustache in the Badlands; my face and body had bronzed from chasing after heifers and riding in the saddle on nineteen-hour runs. I’d splash around in my rubber bathtub like a bad little boy and sit on my piazza, read in the dying light. I’d lost the habits of an Easterner. I hunted cougars, howled with the wolves.
He was a Police Commissioner in Tammany Hall New York; he was a devoted husband and father, and of course most famously he was the leader of the so-called Rough Riders:
We were dubbed “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders,” even if it wasn’t really my regiment, and some of the riders weren’t rough at all. Reporters pecked at us like a pack of hens. I appeared in all the papers, and my lieutenant colonel’s uniform hadn’t even arrived from Brooks Brothers. I had to pose without my gauntlets and campaign hat, with the regiment’s crossed sabers insignia. We were marginal at first, basement bums and bravos. But candidates kept coming out of nowhere, covered in dust … We had polo players from the finest clubs, quarterbacks from Harvard and Yale, five or six masters of the hounds, frontier marshals, mounted policemen from my bailiwick in Manhattan, cattle drovers, and cowboys.
And of course the story comes to a close on a mountain in Vermont, when then-Vice President Roosevelt learns that poor wounded President McKinley has taken a turn for the worse and is dying. We leave TR hurrying to Washington city and a future in which the perilous adventures will take very different forms. “I could feel my freedom slip away with a sudden pull,” Roosevelt thinks, “like the silent shrug of a straitjacket.”
That final note of the book’s conceit, that evocation of a Theodore Roosevelt who was disappointed at becoming President, is a faint-hearted gesture at the book’s cover illustration, minus the mountain lion. Even so, it’s hard to imagine a reader who could finish this book and not yearn for a Charyn novel about the next decade in his hero’s life.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.