Beginning in Anchorage in 1943 and tunneling back to 1914, Bayard’s exhilarating adventure tale crosses the continents, telling of Kermit Roosevelt (1889-1943), the son of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, and the father-and-son expedition into the Amazon Basin Brazilian jungle in what would become known as the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition led by the famous explorer Colonel Cândido Rondon.
A weary, blood-drained, emotionally frail man, Kermit reveals his story through fragments of memories and historical allusions. He begins to retrace the past from his early days as an African hunter, to his father’s intimate attachment to adventure, to his loyal young wife, Belle, who represents a beautiful image of his past life and comes to him in shattered, mercurial visions in a hospital room in Vancouver.
As plot imperceptibly gives way to acerbic dialogue and long, lush interior landscapes, Bayard charts a course into the heart of human evil—much as Joseph Conrad did in Heart of Darkness but with more depth and more passion. Kermit and Teddy’s journey into the center of the Amazon mirrors our own journey into the wild depths of the soul. Just weeks in this South American wilderness, the river (“this bustling, twisting ribbon of black water”) turns into a series of rapids. The two are separated from the main party, the black water sweeping them “downstream like a vise.”
With his beloved Winchester .405 at his side and Belle’s packet of letters against his sternum, Kermit is plagued by visions of Uncle Elliott, who was banished from the family home of Sagemore and from family memory completely. Captured by the Cinta Larga tribe, with the only hope of freedom coming from the slaughter of the “great beast” of the forest, Kermit is convinced that this so-called “beast” is a kind of virus that bides its time then infects a particular creature, driving it to commit terrible savagery. In desperation, father and son turn to Portuguese Luz and her son, Thiago, who assist them in the struggle to slay the creature and return home.
The jungle’s churchy gloom reflects the indifference of nature and the unforgiving Amazon forest that remains austerely silent during the day, swelling with noise the moment the sun begins to sink. Through Kermit’s point of view, we feel the clangs and crashes and rattles--“a thousand living things freed by darkness”--and the dreaded spider monkey, a private summons from the jungle’s largest primate.
A masterpiece of understatement, the tale’s plot is secondary to theme in Bayard’s writing. The real change takes place in the minds of the characters, who face an immensity of experience they cannot even hope to understand, much less prepare themselves for. It’s impossible to miss the gleam in the Teddy’s eye. Kermit remains bruised by his ordeal; he clearly loves his father and wants to protect him at every turn. Thiago is battered, “the old man” Teddy is punctured with blood, charming Luz is painted head to toe in viscera. Embodying a presence that only Stephen King can create, the creature and the beast seem to be terrorizing them all.
In this disturbing, grisly read, Bayard morphs history and horror into his own exploration of his hero’s fractured, unstable mind, giving us a flesh-and-blood portrait of Kermit: a resilient, resourceful, gifted individual who was fierce in his passions and loyalties to his father and to his wife, and to a bond of a lifetime.