Banana Republican: From the Buchanan Fileby Eric Rauchway
Depicted as braggart, brute, and bore in The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan has gotten a bad rap and means to correct the record. That weak-kneed, simpering cousin of his wife's, with his prattling about some lost idealized American individualism and rectitude, was not only a fool and a liar, but worse: a failed bond salesman. Pathetic. But by 1924 Tom has/i>
Depicted as braggart, brute, and bore in The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan has gotten a bad rap and means to correct the record. That weak-kneed, simpering cousin of his wife's, with his prattling about some lost idealized American individualism and rectitude, was not only a fool and a liar, but worse: a failed bond salesman. Pathetic. But by 1924 Tom has bigger problems than the pathos of the summer of '22. First, there's Aunt Gertrude, who has assumed control of the Buchanan fortune. Second, what with Daisy getting jowly and the maids indiscreet, there's little tranquillity at home. Third, a revolution is brewing in Nicaragua that's threatening to ensnare the family investments. So when Tom is dispatched to maneuver among Nicaragua's international corporate intrigues, machine-gun-toting rival political parties, and competing American intelligence agencies, he spies his chance.
A rollicking, outrageous, and altogether brilliant perversion of known facts, Banana Republican sends the sexist, racist, elitist Buchanan careening through America's brilliantly mismanaged intervention in Nicaragua in the early twentieth century. Eric Rauchway bends history to Buchanan's memoir as Tom blunders, shoots, and screws his way through the historical record and makes the case that greed and amorality have always been at the heart of the American dream.
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From the Buchanan File
By Eric Rauchway
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2010 Eric Rauchway
All rights reserved.
I might never have gone to Nicaragua had it not been for the mess that all started one fine summer morning, when I found myself facing a telegram on the hall table. The telltale envelope rested in plain sight, waiting to catch me as I came down the stairs. I stopped, wondering whether I could get around it. It was a beautiful day, warm without being hot, the air soft but not heavy and a good breeze coming down the Sound. I could pretend I hadn't seen it. I could head for the dock and slip into a boat and vanish out onto the water for the bulk of the day. By the time I got back, whatever was so urgent might have expired, and I would have an innocent excuse.
Unless, of course, the wire came from someone really important, like my Aunt Gertrude.
I approached the envelope with care, slit it open, and slid the paper out just enough to peek at the signature: RICHARD. This told me less than I needed to know. Richard was my cousin and Gertrude's stepson; could be safe or un-, I thought, and pulled the message completely out.
BULLY DOINGS DOWN SOUTH. DAGOES NOT SHOOTING JUST NOW. COME JOIN FUN. RICHARD.
Which led me to believe I was off the hook.
You see, like many a youth, my cousin Richard fell under the spell of our late lamented President Theodore Roosevelt sometime during the Great War and never quite recovered. You know the type: bit of a weedy thing as a kid, couldn't punch his weight, constantly pushing a pair of spectacles up his nose and talking about the latest in lepidoptery. Then he gets hold of something hot from the pen of the former president. Maybe it's about how real Americans are manly men who score touchdowns while shooting ostriches and riding bareback on a Negro. For some reason every slender reed who ever wheezed an asthmatic breath took to the Gospel of Theodore, reading eagerly how he should keep the little woman at home while showing some vigor, which in this case meant relentlessly murdering the beasts of the earth and the fowl of the air, stridently hollering "bully" till the welkin rings. P.S., if possible find a small war in which to enlist so you can subjugate a swarthy people.
A dose of that to your average milquetoast and out came the dumbbells and out puffed the chests of these former buttercup-sniffers — only they kept on sniffing the buttercups, that was the infuriating thing; you'd go out with them for a shoot and they'd be blazing away like sixty, missing every duck in the territory but having a whale of a time making noise, then they'd drop to all fours and start rhapsodizing about the vegetation hereabouts, did I realize how unusual might be this particular rhamphorhynchus or phylloxera or what have you.
Roosevelt himself was a brave and tolerably competent madman, on balance, but I could never quite forgive him for filling my generation with these loutish lardoons zealous to lecture you on the chemical content of rhododendron nectar while triumphantly butchering a trout the size of my thumb, perfectly confident they were exhibiting the qualifications necessary to keep the white man on top.
My cousin Richard was one of them. I could not get him to understand my own view that, while I had much rather be in the superior race than not, I didn't think the point of being superior was to get shot at quite as often as possible. Also, though the right sort of people generally avoid mentioning it, it is absolutely true: Roosevelt was a lousy football player and when he talked about the game, it showed — the point of football is actually not to get tackled. Richard not only cottoned to Theodore's theory that getting tackled was good for you, he'd joined the Marines to ensure he could get shot at occasionally, too.
So if Richard was writing to ask my attendance, there was either impending violence he wanted me to see — which, the wire seemed to indicate, there was not — or he had some brilliant plan, born of boredom, for remaking Central America and afterward the world by means of prohibition and simplified spelling.
In either case I imagined I could safely defer an answer for an indefinite period, and I cheerfully dropped the wire in the wastepaper basket and headed out onto the west lawn of the house.
Across the bay to the west I could see — as I saw every time I went down to the waterline — the thickly planted "cottages" over on the neighboring island, nestled cheek-by-jowl, nearly as close together as the warrens of lower Manhattan. Indeed, the cottages were the offspring of those warrens, grown to garish independence. They were little, pretty houses, tidy and in rows, and the families in them were only two generations or so removed from the huddled masses gathered at the rail of the ships steaming up the harbor to the city. Chattering indefatigably, the little fellows swarmed down the plank and into New York, where they sweated and bred in the tenements and workrooms. Some few of them survived and flourished, moving out and onward, most of them to the west, flowing down the rail lines and taking to the onetime frontier towns their mix of alien cultures and suspiciously savory foods.
We ourselves had got out of the way of that current by leaving the West and moving out here to Long Island, east of the East, if you like — but an eddy of that onrushing westward torrent, washing backward just a bit, piled up at the little egglike spit of land across the bay.
So there they were, climbing the ladder, and utterly spoiling my view. They'd molted their cloth coats for ridiculous furs in the winter and yachting caps in the summer; they came out here to throw themselves parties, laboring under the impression that they'd "made it."
Which was their big error, and here I did sympathize with them, truly. It's the great illusion, they sell it to you over and over, and the suckers, bless 'em, they buy it, the idea that you can make it, here. It's just the sort of thing that drew my wife's idiot cousin Nick to settle over there. But, mein kleiner Freund, this is a grave misunderstanding. Only someone as stupid as Nick — how the hell do you fail as a bond salesman? — could think it. But Nick didn't understand business, or football, or women.
Nobody makes anything. Nothing that matters is created or destroyed, at most it's given or gotten, taken in trade if not by force. We move paper, we extend and receive credit, we take possession. That's how my father piled up big holdings out West — he didn't make anything — that was too risky — instead he lent money for improvement to the homesteaders, and then bought them out at cut rates when they couldn't pay terms any longer.
And what worked for my father out West would work for me back East. These fellows up from the city, up two generations off the gangways, couldn't really afford to become my neighbors — they couldn't have got out east to spoil my view unless someone had extended them credit they didn't merit, and someday — maybe not this week, perhaps, or next, but not too many months from now — their large credit would swamp their little money, and I would be there waiting, like my pioneering forebears, to snap up the foreclosures and consolidate my holdings on that distant shore. Then I could raze my way to a decent view. They would all go, the modest bungalows and the cheapjack nouveau manses. I was already watching the decrepit knockoff chateau just across the water, abandoned these two and a half years, sink into litigation and collapse of its own accord. All I had to do was wait, and seize the moment when it arose.
These cheerful thoughts almost put a smile on my face. But then I recalled how my position had changed. You see, I had been prepared to pounce until recently, when it became clear that Gertrude had taken firm hold of the family capital, and suddenly my access to cash was restricted.
Gertrude married my Uncle Freddie just after the war, and over time Freddie had happily yielded to her the burden of managing the Buchanan exchequer. And gradually the money that had been mine to dispose of disappeared into the lining of her capacious nest, and could be got out only by prying it from her talons — which a wise man would be well advised not to try — or by charming the old bird into relaxing her grasp, morsel by morsel, which was the course I'd chosen.
As I looked across the bay at the houses I planned someday to remove, I imagined trees in their place, waving peacefully in the breeze. Palm trees, I rather thought, though that of course was a ridiculous fancy. Still: I liked the idea, and I determined to enjoy the day; the wind came right down along the water, and I could smell salt in the air, and feel the promise of a damp spring morning ahead. My view would not forever be spoiled and for now I could manage a good brisk sail.
Only, it appeared, I couldn't. My daydreamt plans for over there were rudely interrupted by a domestic mess over here. For instead of a fair prospect and a bobbing boat down by our dock I witnessed catastrophe: the chipper little Star I had cheerfully sailed just the night before was now hauled up onto the shingle with an ugly ding in the portside bow; the dock was even worse off, its first few rows of planking badly mangled, and the marker lantern's green glass shattered. Dangling from its post, it looked like a broken wine bottle in a drunk's loose grip.
I broke into a dismayed jog down the slope and as I did so caught the eye of our workman, Johnson, who was swarming over the damaged wreck with his oldest son, hammer in hand. Johnson was a big, black brute of a fellow, which made him a hell of an asset around the place, very good for general appearances and the bottom line, though a bit alarming to look at, all the same. Standing up to his shins in the water, his feet invisible on the top step of a ladder he'd sunk into the muck, he looked as solid as a piling. He'd clawed away a fair few of the gray, broken planks and flung them to one side, and now, one-handed, was pulling their yellow replacements from a neat square stack, slipping each off the top like a playing card from a deck, fitting it into place and with a few delicate slams from a hammer sticking it there.
"Morning, sir," he said at my approach, rubbing his free hand over his woolly head. "Bit of a mystery mishap last night. Looks like someone in a motor launch must have missed the marker lantern and steered right between your boat and the dock. Made a bit of a mess, but didn't wake anyone — unless it woke you."
"I expect he was drunk," Johnson said, and we looked at the mess somberly. "Or she," he added, "nowadays you never can tell."
There was another pause.
"I didn't know if you wanted me to call the police," Johnson's son said.
"No," I said, "nobody was killed as far as we can tell." I kicked one of the broken planks. "I don't suppose you could have fixed the boat first, could you?"
"No, sir, I don't think so," Johnson said. "Probably have to take it in to the fellows at the club marina."
Of course, I thought. Of course. "Stupid drunks," I said. "Driving more boat than they can afford or handle. They don't know how to hold their liquor or how to steer a launch. These boys who fight their way up from the ghettoes to grab the brass ring, they can buy a boat but they didn't grow up knowing the shoals and the piers, the currents and the markers around here. That's the trouble with so many new people on the bay."
"Well, sir, I would of course normally think so," Johnson said, "but there was this in the broken decking." He handed me a small pennant — the sort people will fly on the bows of a launch, if they want to tell you they also know how to sail — from the yacht club.
"Well, you know, people often use those even if they're not entitled."
"That's the problem with these social climbers, never know when to stop."
Johnson and his son looked out to the Sound. I was taking it hard and a glum tide rose within; no sailing for me. But I couldn't let the help see me down, and I was trying to think of a touch of manly banter when a blow from behind took me by surprise.
"Whuff," I said. "Ow."
"Hullo, Daddy!" hollered Pammy, my dear daughter, her arms tightly wrapped around me, and her chin — a miniature version of her mother's chin, without the shadow double and the jowls — parked somewhere in the region of my left kidney.
I turned to face her. She was a delightful creature then, all copper-gold curls and skin nut-brown from the sun, bare feet sticking out from below the hem of her white dress, which flared in the sunlight. "Hello, and how's my little girl?"
But she wasn't looking at me, she was looking past me to the wreck of the dock and the damaged Star. Her eyelids flooded with tears, which began in an instant to pour down her cheeks. Her smile wilted and blossomed into a raw, open wail.
"I wannada ga inna boh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-t!"
"Oh, my dearest, I know you wanted to go sailing. So did I, my honey. But some bad fellow has dinged up our boat. Just a little bit, and it'll get fixed soon, but it's in no shape for us to go today."
"I wannada ga inna boh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-t!"
"Yes, of course, my honey. Maybe you'd like to go riding instead? We could get you into some trousers."
"I wannada ga inna boh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-t!"
There was nothing I could do to cure it; she had melted completely into despair. It wasn't my fault, and I couldn't do anything about it. And on it went. If there was one thing I could never comprehend, it was a woman's moods. What's more, as I'd had no dealings with little girls since I was myself small, with fatherhood came the nasty discovery that women, taken as a people, qualify as supremely rational creatures when compared with that subset of the female dominion known as daughters. If mine was anything to gauge by, they slid in lightning flashes from exuberance to despond without hope of rescue. I knelt helplessly, panic and fury making me grit my teeth. For, what, after all, did she want?
"Miss Pammy," Johnson's son said from over my shoulder, "you can go with me in my boat to fix the lantern if you like."
And in an instant again she had shifted, her grin returning and her gaze directed now beyond me, her hands loosening, and I was discarded for someone with the power to provide waterborne transport. "Really, Eddie?"
"Sure," he said, extending a hand to her. "It's just a rowboat, but it'll do, and we can rock back and forth all you like."
"Wonderful!" she breathed, and had all but forgotten me when: "Oh, Dadda. There's a telegram come for you."
"I know, sweetest, I opened it before I left the house."
"No, this is a new one, just come. I'm going boating! 'Bye!"
"'Bye, dearest," I said to her as she ran off down the dock. As she went I shouted, hoping to get one further, vital bit of intelligence, "Is your mama up?" But she didn't hear. Johnson's boy was helping her down already into the wooden boat he used to hand himself around the dock while conducting repairs, his black hands steadying the boat, the hem of her white dress dipping into the gray water of the Sound. I knew better than to try to stop her pleasure-boating; it would only mean another fight with her mother, who would insist it was perfectly all right: proper little girls know how to behave around darky servants. But all those tawny babies come from somewhere. I turned and walked back up the lawn to face whatever fresh entanglement the wire had brought.
I poked my head into the French windows at the back of the house. The hot morning sun and breeze were just drifting through the white gauzy window curtains and making it hard to see in the shadowed inside. Also drifting, like the stinging tendrils of a jellyfish, from some distant room came the thin melody of a jazz record playing, rasping against my eardrum. It's not, you know, that it's nigger music; I like it well enough in its place — clubs and that sort of dive. But the records all make it sound too high-pitched and wobbly, as if it were belted by ambitious mice suffering an adenoid problem. It gave me a headache. It also meant the missus was indeed up and about. I walked quietly as I could back to the front hall, taking care to step only on the runners, stretching my foot across the bare floorboards where I had to, trying not to make a sound.
Excerpted from Banana Republican by Eric Rauchway. Copyright © 2010 Eric Rauchway. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
A professor of history at the University of California, Davis, Eric Rauchway is the author of Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America (H&W, 2003) and Blessed Among Nations (H&W, 2006). He lives in northern California.
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