Remember The Great Gatsby? (Who doesn’t?) Remember Daisy and Tom Buchanan? (I’d rather not.) Well, Eric Rauchway has given new life to Tom by weaving an entire story around him, supposedly after the events in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. In Fitzgerald’s classic, Tom is little more than a craven bore. Under Rauchway’s spin in Banana Republican, Tom is a bigot, a racist, an opportunist—in short an egotistic bastard, given new life in a fresh environment: Central America, circa 1924, when the United States is doing what it always did/does so well, i.e., intervening in the governments of our supposed strategic friends.
Ostensibly, Buchanan goes to Nicaragua for the reasons all gringos went there: to make money. More specifically, it’s to convince one faction of the government that a railroad is what the country needs, crossing and thus uniting most of the country. There are competing companies, individuals, journalists, spies and U. S. Marines everywhere, but Tom’s plan is to juice up interest in Isthmian Transit and Radio Telegraph which—if he is successful—will result in quick profits for him and his aunt Gertrude who has largely bankrolled the operation from back in the States. It’s a kind of a one joke idea to take pot shots at American involvement overseas with Buchanan as the ideal ugly American for Rauchway’s comic diatribe.
At least Rauchway calls things as they are: “Most places in Central America…the gringos were mainly Americans. And they acted like Americans. They did business all the time. That’s why they came down here—no Yankee in his right mind wanted to come live anywhere that was wall-to-wall poor brown people, sick half the time and shiftless the other half. Americans didn’t come down here for fun, they came down here to make a buck and get out.”
More specifically, “…maybe the Americans aren’t all about business. But most of them are, and mostly they came down here because, like me, they’d had a touch of bad luck and hoped a turn to good fortune would get them out sooner rather than later. They were good men in a bad spot, looking for the little win that would hoist them out of the sticks and send them back to the wood-paneled comfort of their clubs and offices…they’re here strictly to make money and get out.”
Tom gets involved with Nicaraguan Conservatives, Leftists, and Mexican Communists—with an international panoply of dingbats, all walking over Central America for self-serving interests. Rauchway, a historian who has written extensively about American involvements in Central America during the early part of the twentieth century, knows his stuff. The political context of Banana Republican is, thus, historically accurate. There’s even an “Editor’s Afterword,” describing the fate of several of real-life Nicaraguan political figures in his story and what subsequently happened to them.
But, as a novelist, Rauchway is at the learning stage. The plot is often difficult to follow, relying too much on coincidence. And Tom Buchanan is not much thicker than a piece of tissue paper. Whenever things heat up for him—something that happens fairly often—Rauchway pulls out his running gag about Tom’s past when he played football for Yale. For too many other characters in the story that revelation gets him off the hook, often in comic moments that wear thin by the end of the story. There are also rather unconvincing allusions to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, just in case the reader has missed the point.
Even Buchanan’s secondary reason for leaving Daisy and fleeing to Central America to get rich, well, I’ll leave that for you to decide, given the crack-up at the end of Fitzgerald’s novel. Rauchway has Tom remark, “…the marital bed was not tranquil. Or rather, it was too tranquil. You might think, inasmuch as I was sticking up for the wife, I’d have got a pass on the domestic front, but the tighter I circled the wagons, the more vigorously I fended off the besieging savages, the cooler grew the ashes on the campfire, if that’s the metaphor I want.
“Not that they were ever so very hot, those ashes. Truth is, the missus—though powerfully fine to look at, you have to give her that—but the missus was always a little on the chilly side and you could always get a bit more heat if you went farther from the hearth, if you see what I mean. Maybe especially if you went out among the savages.”
So Fitzgerald was right about the Tom and Daisy Buchanan—Rauchway’s got that straight.
By Eric Rauchway
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pp., $25
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.