Offering an intriguing twist to the history of the 1914 Roosevelt-Rondon expedition to Brazil’s Rio da Duvida, “Roosevelt’s Beast” by Louis Bayard presents a disturbing story that is rich in atmospheric suspense. It is, in Bayard’s own words, “a psychological fantasy built out of historic events,” and the very setting—the River of Doubt—lends itself to the mythological feel of the work. While featuring the inimitable Theodore Roosevelt, the story’s main protagonist is his solemn and somewhat beleaguered son, Kermit Roosevelt, who has always traveled in his father’s authoritative shadow. When father and son embark on a late-night hunting foray, they are captured by a primitive tribe and saved from serious harm only to be exploited as hunters. Their quarry is a mysterious beast that leaves no tracks and eviscerates its prey. So begins a harrowing forty-eight hours, in which skeletons in the family closet come to light and the men come face-to-face with their greatest fears.
“Roosevelt’s Beast” is a fascinating literary triumph in the vein of “Heart of Darkness,” combining jungle adventure with the climactic suspense of old. Although there are some more graphic descriptions, the novel overall relies on ethereal suspense and trepidation, and it has the feel of an old-fashioned thriller, thankfully devoid of sexuality and unnecessary violence. Due to its setting, the dialogue is peppered with Portuguese, and while the phrases employed are translated or given enough context for understanding, anyone with knowledge of Spanish or similar languages will not need translations. The story itself unfolds as a flashback, and within that the mise en abyme technique comes into play because there are also flashbacks within the main narrative thread.