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Bully Novel Comes From Real-Life Exploits of Teddy Roosevelt

September 22, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

It's the stuff that rip-roaring Westerns are made of:

The dude from the East, his health fragile and his life in ruins after his mother and beloved bride die the same day, comes West to seek solitude.

He becomes a rancher in the North Dakota Badlands, the untamed wilderness ruled by the handsome and notorious Marquis De Mores, principal landowner and pretender to the throne of France whose beautiful young wife is from the dude's New York social set.

When the Badlands are invaded by a mob of night-riding vigilantes, "whispered rumors hold that the Marquis himself leads them." Dozens of men are lynched in an effort to rid the area of its small ranchers--including the dude from New York, who "must use his burgeoning outdoorsman's talents in combination with his Easterner's knack for organization and politicking to bring down the Marquis."

It is, as the publisher says, "a sprawling epic of the American West of the 1880s."

But what reads like fiction is based on reality.

The dude from the East is 24-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, the main character in "Manifest Destiny" (Penzler Books), Brian Garfield's biographical novel that dramatizes "the true story of the coming of age" of the 26th President of the United States.

"It's surprising how little fiction there is in that book, although I did write it as a novel," said Garfield, who recently appeared at book signings at Book Carnival in Orange and the Bookstore in Irvine.

The Studio City author's next Orange County book signing will be from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Waldenbooks, 665 N. Tustin Ave., Orange. (Also scheduled to sign are Melodie Johnson Howe, author of "The Mother Shadow," and the wife-and-husband writing team known as A.E. Maxwell, authors of "The Art of Survival.")

Garfield, who is best known for his novel "Death Wish," said he had the idea for a biographical novel about Theodore Roosevelt's Western exploits for at least 25 years, "and I was always convinced somebody else must already be working on it. It's such a good story and nobody has done it in fictional form."

The author first visited Roosevelt's log ranch house in the Badlands five years ago. In doing his research for the book, he also dug through the Theodore Roosevelt archives at Harvard and at Roosevelt's home in Sagamore Hills, Long Island. Most of the material for the book, however, came from libraries and historical societies in North Dakota.

"It's real nice that 100 years ago everybody wrote," said Garfield. "They wrote incessant letters and kept diaries and memoirs. Everybody who knew Theodore Roosevelt in those days naturally sat down and wrote a book about him when he became famous."

When 24-year-old Theodore Roosevelt arrived in the Badlands, Garfield said, he was not the big, robust character that usually comes to mind. He was underweight, sickly, extremely nearsighted, suffered from asthma and spoke with a squeaky voice.

"He had everything going against him," said Garfield. "Despite all those drawbacks and shortcomings, he was just a natural leader. He had this most incredibly charismatic personality. People . . . were eager to follow him."

When Roosevelt first arrived in the Badlands, Garfield said, he was "ridiculed as a stumble-bum dude. Within a year he was elected chairman of the Stockman's Assn. You couldn't keep him down."

Although "Manifest Destiny" is fictional to the extent that Garfield couldn't know what the characters said to each other or what they were thinking and feeling at the time, he said all the characters and events are real.

"The plot of the story, oddly enough, is a very strongly structured, almost traditional Western," he said. "Roosevelt's life became essentially the basis for what we grew up with as the Western formula. His experiences in Dakota were pretty parallel to that: a small rancher menaced by land grabber. . . . He finally went up against the big bad guy. The bad guy challenged him to a duel. . . . It's your classic Western formula. That's why I was just flabbergasted nobody else did it."

Garfield, who has written "somewhere between 60 and 70" fiction and nonfiction books, in addition to screenplays, alternates between writing contemporary novels and historical novels such as "Wild Times," which was based on Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows.

"It drives my publishers and agent absolutely up the wall," he said, "because they can't typecast me."

Poetry chosen: The American Poetry Assn. has selected six poems by Arthur Winslow of Westminster to appear in "American Poetry Anthology," a treasury of current poetry. Poets interested in publication may send up to six poems on any subject to the American Poetry Assn., Dept. CT-67, P.O. Box 1803, Santa Cruz, Calif. 95061. Each poem must be no more than 20 lines, and the poet's name and address must be included on each page.

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