The “incredibly old man” of the title is none other than Juan Ponce de León, 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 León 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 León 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 Católica and running into the 20th century, de León 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 León, who wants to be memorialized in a particular way, and Siegel, who does his best but is constantly subject to de León’s refinements, criticisms and (occasionally) contempt.
The novel is whimsical, erotic and comic all at the same time, and Ponce de León is revealed as an exuberant, self-indulgent and crusty old guy.