“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.”
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.