Love and the Incredibly Old Man: A Novel [NOOK Book]


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” begins one chapter of critically acclaimed Lee Siegel’s new novel, Love and the Incredibly Old Man. “In the beginning” starts another. What else can a novelist do when hired as a ghostwriter by an elderly, irascible, conquistador-costumed man claiming to be the 540-year-old Juan Ponce de León? The fantastic life of that legendary explorer—inventor of rum, cigars, Coca-Cola, and popcorn—is the frame for Siegel’s fourth ...
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Love and the Incredibly Old Man: A Novel

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” begins one chapter of critically acclaimed Lee Siegel’s new novel, Love and the Incredibly Old Man. “In the beginning” starts another. What else can a novelist do when hired as a ghostwriter by an elderly, irascible, conquistador-costumed man claiming to be the 540-year-old Juan Ponce de León? The fantastic life of that legendary explorer—inventor of rum, cigars, Coca-Cola, and popcorn—is the frame for Siegel’s fourth chronicle of love, lies, luck, loss, and labia.  
            Summoned with cold hard cash and a pinch of flattery, a professor and novelist named Lee Siegel finds himself in Eagle Springs, Florida, attempting to give form to the life of the man who, contrary to popular and historical opinion, did indeed find the Fountain of Youth. Spending humid days listening to the romantic ramblings of the old man and sleepless nights doubting yet trying to craft these reminiscences into a narrative that will satisfy the literary aspirations of his subject, Siegel the ghostwriter spins an improbable tale filled with Native Americans, insatiable monarchs, philandering cantors, deliriously passionate nuns, delicate actresses, androgynous artists, and deceptions small and large. For de León, and for Siegel too, centuries of conquest and colonialism, fortune and identity, are all refracted through the memories of the conquistador’s lovers, each and every one of them adored “more than any other woman ever.”
            Comic, melancholic, lusty, and fully engaged with the act of invention, whether in love or on the page, Love and the Incredibly Old Man continues the real Lee Siegel’s exuberant exploration of that sentiment which Ponce de León confesses has “transported me to the most joyous heights, plunged me to the most dismal depths, and dropped me willy-nilly and dumbfounded at all places in between.”
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Mix a history of Spanish conquistadors in the New World with a porny pulp tale, and the result is this entertaining novel. The premise: Juan Ponce de Leon, the venerable 16th-century Spanish conquistador, is alive and living in Florida thanks to the Fountain of Youth (which he discovered). But with the fountain running dry, the explorer is anxious to chronicle his 540 years on Earth before shuffling off this mortal coil, and summons ghostwriter Lee Siegel to record the lurid details of his countless love affairs. The irascible explorer-between coining imaginative words such as cardarring (meaning, among other things, to have sex)-lays out a reasonably reliable (lurid embellishments notwithstanding) rendering of Ponce de Leon's travels. In addition to his other vices, Ponce de Leon (who claims to have invented cigars, rum and popcorn) leans heavily on cocaine-infused rum punch and morphine as he and Siegel race to beat the explorer's quickly approaching death. While this novel offers a decidedly goofy point of view, surprisingly, it works. Siegel slips in the history lessons so deftly that readers will barely realize they are being educated as well as titillated. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
The "incredibly old man" of the title is none other than Juan Ponce de Le-n, who (in Siegel's take) did discover the Fountain of Youth, lived through tumultuous historical times and died in 2006. The conceit of this novel from Siegel (Who Wrote the Book of Love?, 2005, etc.) is that Ponce de Le-n contacts a writer of indifferent gifts named Lee Siegel to pen his memoirs, for the Spanish explorer hasn't written anything of note since his last logbook entry in 1513. Siegel takes on the formidable task, meanwhile trying to decide whether de Le-n is fraudulent, authentic or crazy. The narrative is divided into historical sections beginning in 1465 and ending with a coda in 2006. Along the way we become acquainted with the subject's life: his background as a "converso" (or converted Jew); his being dispatched to the New World in search of the Fountain of Youth; his invention of cigars and rum and discovery of popcorn; his taking on the guise of a priest but later dedicating the first synagogue in Florida; his later years as an actor and land speculator. But he recounts with even greater zest the catalogue of his lovers-and over the course of some 540 years this list is impressive. Starting out with Queen Ysabel la Cat-lica and running into the 20th century, de Le-n whores and debauches his way through some 30 or more lovers. (In later life he makes an alphabetical catalogue he runs through to help him get to sleep at night.) He does point out, however, that he got married only five times, an average of once per century. Throughout the novel, a comic discrepancy exists between de Le-n, who wants to be memorialized in a particular way, and Siegel, who does his best but is constantly subject tode Le-n's refinements, criticisms and (occasionally) contempt. The novel is whimsical, erotic and comic all at the same time, and Ponce de Le-n is revealed as an exuberant, self-indulgent and crusty old guy.
A creative attitude to the novel is in abundant evidence across all Siegel's fiction; and this new novel is a worthy addition to a body of work which deserves a wider audience.

— Stephen Burn

Kirkus Reviews

"Whimsical, erotic and comic all at the same time."

Publishers Weekly

"Mix a history of Spanish conquistadors in the New World with a porny pulp tale, and the result is this entertaining novel. . . . . While this novel offers a decidedly goofy point of view, surprisingly, it works."

TLS - Stephen Burn
"A creative attitude to the novel is in abundant evidence across all Siegel's fiction; and this new novel is a worthy addition to a body of work which deserves a wider audience."
The Barnes & Noble Review
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-littérateur'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-fé 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. "[T]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. --Stefan Beck

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226757070
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2008
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 240
  • File size: 611 KB

Meet the Author

Lee Siegel is the author of numerous books, including Love in a Dead Language, Love and Other Games of Chance, and Who Wrote the Book of Love?
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Table of Contents

An Introduction to Juan Ponce de León
Chapter One
Wherein Ponce de León, after his childhood, boyhood, and youth in Spain, is dispatched by Queen Ysabel to the Indies in search of a Fountain of Youth
Chapter Two
Wherein Ponce de León settles in the New World, becomes governor of Higuey and of Borinquen, invents cigars and rum, and discovers popcorn and Florida
Chapter Three
Wherein Ponce de León happens upon the Garden of Eden, discovers within it the Fountain of Life, and devises a plot by which to keep it secret
Chapter Four
Wherein Ponce de León becomes a Zhotee-eloq Indian, lives as one of them in Paradise, and attempts to save them from extermination

Chapter Five
Wherein Ponce de León becomes a priest of the Catholic Church, visits his tomb in Puerto Rico, and establishes Florida’s Mission of San Hortano
Chapter Six
Wherein Ponce de León becomes a wealthy merchant, purchases the land of the Mission of San Hortano for the cultivation of tobacco, becomes his own son, and then his grandson
Chapter Seven
Wherein Ponce de León becomes a Jew and dedicates Florida’s first synagogue for Congregation Beth Mekor-Hayim
Chapter Eight
Wherein Ponce de León opens Florida’s first theater and returns to the stage to play, among others, Christ, Columbus, Hamlet, an Old Man, and himself
Chapter Nine
Wherein Ponce de León becomes an American citizen, opens a yellow fever sanatorium and, subsequently, an infirmary for Confederate soldiers wounded in the Civil War
Chapter Ten
Wherein Ponce de León becomes himself at celebrations of Florida Discovery Day, and at the openings of the Hotel Ponce de Leon, the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse, and the Grace Methodist Fountain of Youth Residence for the Aged
Chapter Eleven
Wherein Ponce de León opens and maintains the Garden of Eden, the Fountain of Youth, and the Ponce de Leon Museum of Florida History
Wherein the author ends the story of Juan Ponce de León
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