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Richard Zacks
Island of Vice

Doubleday / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-385-31972-4
Publication Date: 03-13-2012
433 Pages; $27.95
Date Reviewed: 04-14-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  Non-Fiction

People and the lives they lead, the events they experience, do not necessarily form a coherent narrative. But we humans crave stories and we like them to be consistent. We want our heroes to be heroic, and always right. History may not agree, in which case it is up to the humans viewing the events, the history, to find the stories, find the characters and give us both the truth of events we need and the story of people we desire.

In the case of Teddy Roosevelt, we have our preconception; the Rough Rider and the trust-buster. But we know only what Teddy Roosevelt became; not what he was beforehand. 'Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York' by Richard Zacks, finds a story in history that we've not heard. Zacks manages to wrestle an unruly history into a compelling page-turner that shows us a man we thought we knew in a new light, and lets us have one hell of a good time doing so. 'Island of Vice' is as much fun to read as many of the events it describes, and unlike most of them, completely legal in all fifty states.

'Island of Vice' appeals on a number of levels, but first and foremost it gives us a gallery of great characters. Zacks starts the story before Roosevelt's arrival on the scene, with the crusading Reverend Charles Parkhurst, who hopes to end the rampant prostitution and illegal drinking that is regulated but not prosecuted by the police, from Captain "Big Bill" Devery to the lowliest man walking the beat. The Teddy Roosevelt who walks on stage is a hard-headed, well-heeled but rather green naïf who jumps into this cauldron of chaos, entering the political area with an excess of zeal but a surfeit of experience. Zacks is a master of crafting characters, fitting them into context and setting them loose in a wild-east landscape. Even though the cast here is large, and larger than life, Zacks makes it easy to remember who is who and what their competing and often really oddball obsessions are.

Zacks confines himself to a very strictly defined period in Roosevelt's life, that of his tenure as one of four commissioners on the Police Board in New York. It was a frustrating assignment for the unsubtle Roosevelt. He came in with a bang, but his black-and-white approach rapidly got him in trouble with most of those on all sides of the law. Zacks' portrait is striking, deep and impressive, with a lot of literary weight. We see Roosevelt change, grow and come up against forces he cannot simply steamroll over. Zacks gives a quirky and nuanced vision of a man who was neither. This is true for all the characters you find here; they're all fun to be with.

Gives the close focus, it's also impressive that Zacks is able to give readers more than one great plot arc. The basic conflict finds Roosevelt aiming to enforce laws that he doesn't necessarily believe should be in place, but he was obsessively compelled to fight the battle once he started it. Roosevelt is not a quitter, even when it seems pretty clear he should be. Running through Roosevelt's stories are those of others; each is orchestrated to fit into the overall plot of the book while they maintain their own steady courses.

The New York that Zacks creates is a world of contradictions on every level. Cops regulate vice and fight crime. Wealth and poverty rub shoulders, as do piety and perversity. The press pummels Roosevelt and relentlessly torments him, when they are not lauding the bit of progress he does make in reigning in crime. Readers will get a real feel for the streets that Roosevelt walks in disguise. Zacks knows how to build a world that has since been transformed countless times.

'Island of Vice' offers readers a sidewalk-level tour of a city by man we know, it becomes clear, in name only. For all the poverty and problems we see, there's real joy in the prose, and excitement in the storytelling. Zacks has a very nicely understated sense of humor, which he uses to capture the contradictions of the period — and the present. Marshalling his skills in prose, in plot and in character, Richard Zacks' 'Island of Vice' turns history into story, and Teddy Roosevelt into an even more compelling and complicated man of ill-advised but well-intentioned actions.

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