Eric Rauchway Revisits ‘The Great Gatsby’
‘Banana Republican’ expands on life, times of Tom Buchanan
In Fitzgerald’s novel, set in Long
Island in 1922, Tom is the wealthy, old-aristocratic neighbor of
narrator Nick Carraway and the mysterious, nouveau riche Jay Gatsby. Tom is
married to the beautiful but superficial Daisy, a distant cousin of Nick, who
has an affair with the unmarried Gatsby.
Like Fraser, Rauchway offers his debut novel as
the unearthed memoir of his protagonist. In a preface, Rauchway, a historian at
the University of California-Davis and author of nonfiction historical works,
dismisses Tom’s memoir as an impossibility by a fictional character, “an
opportunistic fraud” that nevertheless “presents an honest and frank testimony
about the machinery of American power” and “ruthlessly parodies the wishful
American dream readers see in Fitzgerald’s novel.”
Tom, Rauchway says, holds “repugnant views”
about everyone and everything. So he does; he jeers at everything that does not
reflect his racist, reactionary, sexist, snobbish self. He is cheerfully amoral
and his greed is on a par with Gordon Gekko’s. Ergo, Banana Republican is a novel made for our times.
It is 1924 and Tom lives in precarious luxury on
the estate with Daisy, having grown pudgy, cold and cross. That famous green
light at the end of the dock, which has been interpreted in dozens of ways down
the decades, has been shattered; “dangling from its post, it looked like a
broken wine bottle in a drunk’s loose grip.”
His luxury is precarious because the family
fortune is now controlled by his Aunt Gertrude. That means she also controls
him—to the extent of sending him off to work as a kind of intelligence agent
for her railroad project in Nicaragua.
Tom goes, grudgingly but also gladly, for it offers the possibility of making
enough money to get him out from under her thumb.
and later Guatemala,
Tom gets up to the usual filibustering gringo adventures. He tries to buy a
government, but it backfires. He manipulates stock to his own advantage. He
engages in gunrunning and attendant gun battles. And, naturally, he has his way
with every willing female, of whom there are not just a few.
Rauchway, again like Fraser, anchors his story
in the historical facts. This was the period when the United States used its Marines and agents from
the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence to get the government(s) it
wanted in Nicaragua.
At various times Tom engages, militarily and
otherwise, with Carlos José Solórzano, Gen. José Moncada, Juan Bautista
Sacasa—prominent names in Nicaraguan history—and with probably the most
well-known name to Americans, Augusto César Sandino (of Sandinista fame), who
Tom labels “a truly dull swindler.” Rauchway even introduces a relatively
obscure real-life American, fortuitously named Richard Bell Buchanan, a Marine
captain who died in Nicaragua
in 1927, as a supposed cousin of Tom’s.
The story is intriguing, but the telling is
rather flat. After a promising start, it continually spins its wheels, never
quite gaining the traction or tension that should go with a thriller, even an
It ends uncertainly, with Tom not achieving—yet—his fortune, perhaps bespeaking a sequel. The author has a good concept and a likably unlikable character in Tom. If there is a next time, may we respectfully ask that it include more about the recently frowsy Daisy?