Book review: ‘Banana Republican’ by Eric Rauchway
You remember Tom Buchanan, of course — sometime Yale football star and war hero and, most important, a relatively minor, yet pivotal, character in “The Great Gatsby.” In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s revered novel he is presented as a boor and a blunderer who somehow manages to do the right thing when his wife, Daisy, accidentally kills his mistress in a hit-and-run accident.
FOR THE RECORD:
“Banana Republican”: In the Aug. 27 Calendar section, a review of “Banana Republican,” Eric Rauchway’s novel that describes what happens to Tom Buchanan in the years after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby,” identified Buchanan as being a war hero. It was Gatsby, not Buchanan, who held this distinction. —
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy,” Fitzgerald wrote, “they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money and their vast carelessness … and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” It is the marvelous conceit of Eric Rauchway, a historian who teaches at UC Davis, to imagine a sequel for Tom.
“Banana Republican” is set a couple of years after the events recounted in “Gatsby,” and, frankly, things are not going so well for the Buchanans. Daisy, who remains an off-stage voice, is putting on weight and not putting out for Tom, who, humiliatingly, is also forced to apply to his stern and cranky Aunt Gertrude for the funds he requires to support their handsome way of life. This entails his making a trip to Nicaragua, circa 1924, to oversee his aunt’s interest in Isthmian Transit and Radio Telegraph, a cynically imperialist attempt to construct a railroad that will profitably link two regions of the country. Currently, her plans are being thwarted by revolutionary conditions, with conservatives, liberals, an expeditionary force of U.S. Marines, the odd communist or two, and various mysterious characters contentiously representing the interests of several foreign nations, contending for control of this nation in embryo.
This is not promising territory for a fellow of Tom’s rather crude nature. Tallyrand he is not. It also presents Rauchway with what seem to me insoluble fictional problems. He wants his tale to be what the jacket copy calls “rollicking” and the reader keeps hoping that will turn out to be so. We want Tom to be is a sort of all-American doofus, stumbling comically in and out of trouble in a complicated situation, which is clearly meant to prefigure our latter-day misadventures in the dimmer corners of our would-be empire. But loutish Tom, as Fitzgerald rather perfunctorily imagined him, was never a potentially funny guy. Rauchway imagines him as a racist (the N word is often on his lips), a heedless sexual adventurer (many a woman falls pliantly to his inexplicable charms) as he maneuvers his way among the corrupt contenders for power in this historically and geographically faraway land. As far as one can tell, Rauchway appears to be faithful to the known record of this not-so-splendid little war — he is, after all, a professional historian — but factually is always the enemy of the rollicking.
That, however, is not this novel’s central problem. It is inherently an adventure tale. Before it is over Tom has embroiled himself in battles on land, on water, in the air, temporarily aligned with this or that faction. In this confusion we, as readers, require someone to root for, especially in situations where it is often difficult to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. And Tom is the only logical candidate for that role. In the largest sense, he remains a Yankee imperialist, faithfully attempting to fulfill Aunt Gertrude’s commands. But on the ground, fighting more for his own survival than any economic or ideological imperative, his churlishness largely dissipates. His racism becomes muted. A certain sympathy for the innocent victims of revolutionary warfare manifests itself. It may even be that something like dubiety about Manifest Destiny takes hold of Tom.
In any event, I have no doubt that Rauchway intended his book to be something of a picaresque. There’s nothing like a tin pot, half-forgotten little revolution in an out of the way place to bring out in a writer his satirical and cynical impulses; all that pain and misery expended on what is really a minor mess. But people do get dead in the course of these imbroglios — rather absurdly so, considering the minor stakes. That can cause an obviously humane writer like Rauchway to ease off on the gags. And to focus, sometimes in rather too much detail, on the larger political implications of his story.
In this case, the reader is perhaps best advised to take the clichéd advice about trusting the tale, rather than its teller. Read as a straightforward adventure yarn, “Banana Republican” offers the pleasures of an exotic setting, inventive plotting and a metaphor that captures the waste and fatuity of our more recent global misadventures — not too bad for a slender and unpretentiously written little novel.
Whether by design or accident, Tom Buchanan is, at the end of “Banana Republican,” a far cry from the man he was at the end of “The Great Gatsby.” He is rather likeable — no longer the crass representative of ignorant American materialism that Fitzgerald clearly intended him to be. It’s possible as well that the author cannot entirely shake off his scholarly impulses. Or that he is just not as funny as he may think he is. Or that he is a victim of a publishing house rather desperate to make his book, as written, live up to its outrageously attractive premise.
Schickel is the author, most recently, of “Clint: A Retrospective.”