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Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010

Eric Rauchway Revisits ‘The Great Gatsby’

‘Banana Republican’ expands on life, times of Tom Buchanan

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George MacDonald Fraser plucked Harry Flashman, a cad and bully in Thomas Hughes’ Victorian novel TomBrown’s Schooldays, and turned him into the cynical anti-hero of a series of 12 consistently entertaining Flashman historical novels. Similarly, Eric Rauchway has taken Tom Buchanan, equally disreputable but in ways different from Flashman, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and made him the centerpiece of the occasionally amusing Banana Republican (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

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.

In Nicaragua, 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 absurd one.

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?

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