Dachokie's Reviews > Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean up Sin-loving New York

Island of Vice by Richard Zacks
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Jan 10, 2012

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Read from January 10 to February 13, 2012

TR at his Worst ...

This book was reviewed as part of Amazon's Vine program which included a free advance copy of the book.

I found Richard Zacks' tale of Theodore Roosevelt's attempt to "cleanse" New York City both an eye-opening and educational read. ISLAND OF VICE vividly paints a clearer picture of late 19th century New York City and proves that dirty politics isn't a late 20th century invention. And while the detailing of a younger Theodore Roosevelt really captured my attention, the book never seemed to get on track long enough to make it an excitable read.

The story behind ISLAND OF VICE is certainly interesting. 1890s New York City is soaked in enough decadence, corruption and filth to make 1970s New York City blush. Zacks depicts the city as being "wide open" with its booze consumption and its population's proclivity for making prostitution a lucrative business. Added to the mix are a corrupt police department and a seedy, volatile political scene (including remnants of Boss Tweed's Tammany Hall and reform-minded Republicans). Shakedowns, payouts, beatings and bribing are portrayed as typical city life. Zacks uses several of the initial chapters to subtly and effectively build Theodore Roosevelt's introduction to the storyline while simultaneously displaying the city's mounting social decay. Capitalizing on the likely assumption that readers' familiarity of Roosevelt is based on his daring deeds on San Juan Hill or his bullish, practicality as a US President, his entry to the story as the City's savior is somewhat anticipated. But the story doesn't follow such an easy, predictable path, as subsequent chapters reveal that police commissioner Roosevelt's goal of ridding New York City of its corruption, drinking and fornicating proves to be a failed quest. Accompanying this failure is the portrayal of the young, future-President as a driven and passionate man, as well as a petulant bully. It is hard to read ISLAND OF VICE and not think TR's difficult term as police commissioner probably did more to prepare him for the Presidency than anything else. Interestingly, Zacks adds color to the vice vs. virtue battle that comprises the core of book by letting the voice of the powerful New York print media assist in telling the story. The witty and snarky comments used by the newspapers back then proved that news media was just as antagonistic 100 years ago as it is now. Additionally, the description of humorous political cartoons in the book had me searching Google to get a possible look at them.

Zacks' thorough research is evident throughout the book and I genuinely felt I'd received a fairly thorough education on the subject matter upon finishing ISLAND OF VICE. But, frequently along the journey, I felt the need to put the book down and sometimes force myself to continue. The story, while well told and definitely informative, proved to be tedious at times. The book might well be too researched and detailed. The only other rationale I can theorize is that the subject matter (late 19th century America), while intriguing for me initially, is simply not an exciting read as I prefer (and relate more to) 20th century American history. With that being said, I felt the greatest benefit was learning more about Theodore Roosevelt, the man, not the President. Zacks, to some degree, breaks down the mythical status of TR and displayed him in more human terms, flaws and all (I loved how TR's seething frustration repeatedly rears its ugly head throughout the book). Additionally, it was quite interesting to envision New York City in such an infantile state compared to what it is like now.

ISLAND OF VICE, despite the lack of being an engrossing read for me, aggressively tackles a lesser-known subject matter and provides a thorough understanding of events. After reading Zacks' book, I have a desire to learn more about both Theodore Roosevelt and late 19th century New York City.
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