The Fish That Ate the Whale

Here is my advice. If you are a fan of pulp fiction, of seamy thrillers, of dank and tawdry noirs, of ashcan gutter naturalism, of absurdist caper novels, of whatever-it-takes-to-succeed, rags-to-riches sagas, then put away your books by David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Ross Thomas, George Gissing, Chester Himes, James M. Cain, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and James Hadley Chase, and instead pick up Rich Cohen’s vigorous and gripping The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King. This history-embedded, anecdote-rich biography of Sam Zemurray, the bigger-than-life figure behind United Fruit Company at its height of power, is a balls-to-the-wall, panoramic, rocket ride through an acid bath, featuring unbelievable-but-true tales of power-grabbing, ambition, folly, passion, commerce, politics, artistry, and savagery: daydream and nightmare together.

Zemurray’s epic life began in Russia in 1877. Transplanted to Selma, Alabama, the young immigrant developed boundless hustle and drive, both out of his innate personality and the press of dire circumstances. He began by peddling cheaply the bananas no one else wanted, the ones too ripe to travel to distant markets. He quickly graduated to founding and running his own company, Cuyamel, located in the Honduras. When business-friendly revolutions needed stoking, Zemurray was not averse to stoking them, employing colorful mercenaries who could have come from the pages of dime novels. Butting heads with United Fruit, the dominant power in the field, Zemurray engineered a union in 1929. The following year, he sold Cuyamel to United Fruit and retired.

But by 1933 he was forced to assume the reins once more out of business necessity and ruled for another two-and-a-half decades, overseeing such imperialist escapades as the Guatemalan coup that ousted Jacobo Árbenz in the 1950s. (And maybe also the assassination of Louisiana politician Huey Long?) But as times changed, Zemurray’s rough-and-tumble old-school ways fell out of favor, as did United Fruit’s fortunes. When Zemurray died in 1961, his beloved enterprise was but a shadow of its former world-bestriding self.

What ultimately accretes from Cohen’s dazzling narrative of Zemurray’s tough-guy life is the sense of an incredible man who spanned several incongruous eras. “[In 1893] few people [in America] had ever seen a banana.” It’s true that each individual who lives for eight decades or more journeys across a tapestry of time. But some such runs encompass decades of relative uniformity. A person of eighty in the year 2012 has seen a lot. But when he or she was born, we already had radio and films, cars and airplanes, pop stars and advertising. Zemurray was born the year Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India, and he ended up having to deal with Che Guevara. That he grew and adapted as much as he did is testament to the largeness of his capacities.

Like Nick Tosches, Cohen gives us this awesome story with a novelist’s canny eye for details and pacing — he injects learned disquisitions that are easy to digest whenever necessary — and a fair share of reflection and commentary and psychologizing without undue editorializing or finger-pointing. He’s fully in sympathy with Zemurray’s bravado and zest for living, and sad about his semi-tragic end. Cohen also ruminates insightfully on commerce and politics, the growth of globalization and the way a single individual can shape history. Moreover, Cohen takes the time to build up excellent portraits of such intriguing subsidiary personages as Lee Christmas, soldier of fortune.

Cohen mentions actor William Holden as someone who might have played Zemurray. I myself picture Burt Lancaster or Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn or Robert Mitchum. But whoever you envision, you’ll have to admit after finishing this riveting biography that Zemurray’s type of individualist and entrepreneur is just not being made anymore. Like the “Big Mike” variety of banana which fueled his early career, his species has gone extinct.

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.