Love and the Incredibly Old Man

A good historical novel is a rare thing. For every Patrick O?Brian or E. L. Doctorow, there must be thousands of hacks churning out Master and Commander fan fiction and Dixie-rising “alternate history.” It?s forgivable. Fiction is challenging enough without having to develop a chick-litt?rateur?s eye for costume, or to write period dialogue that rises above that of an elementary-school play. Unless one is a world-renowned historian or commands a battalion of research assistants, he ought to stick to what he knows.

To this, novelist Lee Siegel (not to be confused with the journalist of the same name) would say: “What if what, or rather who, I know is a significant historical personage?” In his fourth outing, Love and the Incredibly Old Man, a writer, also named Lee Siegel, is invited to Florida to ghost-write the lengthy, lubricious, and hilarious biography of Juan Ponce de Le?n. Mr. de Le?n swears to Yahweh that he was born Samson ben Aryeh, son of a Jewish stage troupe manager, and that as one of Queen Ysabel?s court performers and “sundry clandestine paramours” he was sent to the New World under a new name, to escape the Inquisition and discover the Fountain of Youth — which, naturally, he did.

This is neither a postmodern gag nor an indulgent magic-realist fantasia, nor, of course, a work of historical fiction in the usual sense. Best to call it an audacious and accomplished act of imagination, requiring of the reader the same auto-da-f? it demands of our beleaguered ghost writer. Lee Siegel the character doesn?t believe a single jot of the story dictated to him by an old man accoutered in what looks like wax museum getup (and Ray-Bans), a man who claims with furious insistence to be hundreds of years old, even to have discovered or invented rum, cigars, and popcorn. Yet he faces a dilemma familiar to all writers: he needs the money. And the Incredibly Old Man is loaded.

However preposterous the conceit, the reader finds himself sharing in Siegel?s waning disbelief. Mr. de Le?n?s panoply of “objets d?art and documents,” he concedes, “did seem impressively and authentically ancient.” The fading conquistador — who wants to preserve his legacy because the Fountain has gone dry — also delivers a bizarre, occult-tinged account of the Fountain?s origins (hint: Eagle Springs, Florida, is ?the Gan Eden of the Hebrews and the hortus deliciarum of the Christian cartographers?) that for sheer complexity and intrigue should make Dan Brown hang his head in defeat.

Love and the Incredibly Old Man contains history both true and gratuitously false, but it isn?t history of the textbook variety that Mr. de Le?n is interested in bequeathing to posterity. At one point Siegel interrupts his flamboyant employer: “Don?t you think that in a book, the premise of which is that the narrator has been alive for five hundred and forty years, we might write a few things about history, about political events…? Surely the author of this book should have something to say about imperialism, colonialism, slavery, genocide, and the oppression of indigenous cultures. In all of the chapters so far, your only real concern has been with Ponce de Le?n?s sex life.”

This is true. Ponce de Le?n?s story is primarily the baroque and comical history of his many loves, each one abandoned to mortality or cast aside to conceal his secret. His tragic if dubious refrain is ?I loved her more than any woman ever.? He suffers from insomnia, partly due to his cocaine-spiked rum punch, but instead of counting sheep he reminisces about a different former lover for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (Poor Lee Siegel tries this, too, with less success than the aged lothario.) Mr. de Le?n muses, “I want my readers to understand that age does not, despite what anyone may propose in a vain effort to take the sting out of senescence, help one understand love or control it.” He ought to know.

Siegel does touch upon the more fraught aspects of the American conquest, but it?s a suitably light touch. After Mr. de Le?n obliquely reveals that he had to dispose of certain prying individuals (“after fifty years as a Zhotee-eloq” Indian, he says, he had “become adept at archery”), he tartly instructs his scribe to “note…that doing what I did do in the eighteenth century didn?t seem quite so wicked then…. Morality has a way of changing over the years.” Where have we heard that before?

Mr. de Le?n is not only a philanderer and killer but also selfish and opportunistic in keeping his Fountain to himself. In order to preserve his secret he turns it into, at different points in history, a Catholic mission (more of a swingers? den), a Confederate hospital (more of a brothel, which becomes so popular that Graybacks are shooting themselves in the feet to get in), and, as the Fountain begins to run dry and death is near, a hide-in-plain-sight tourist trap.

“Compassion and courage are…not my most salient virtues,” he tells Siegel. “he good lover would consider letting humanity perish and suffer in hell if doing otherwise impeded just one kiss from the lips of his beloved.” It?s because he is so wicked, so awful at justifying himself but so voluble in doing so, that we have to adore old Ponce; we have to believe he?s the real deal.

Love and the Incredibly Old Man may not be to everyone?s taste — too zany, too dirty, perhaps too cavalier about the more tragic and bloody aspects of the past — but Siegel?s knack for the tall tale is undeniable. He has slashed and burned his way to the heart of the Twain tradition, expertly yoking accurate-seeming historical detail to the kind of florid plot that few contemporary novelists would try to get away with. It makes one wonder whether “Truth is stranger than fiction” wasn?t just propaganda for bores who shouldn?t have been writing in the first place.