July 20 (Bloomberg) -- The Tom Buchanan that F. Scott Fitzgerald brought to life in “The Great Gatsby” is introduced in quick strokes: “hard mouth,” “arrogant eyes,” “supercilious manner.”
The narrator, nascent bond trader Nick Carraway, also finds “something pathetic” in Buchanan, a wealthy Yale football legend, when he worries that the “rise of the colored empires” will erode the dominance of “the Nordics.”
Now the Buchanan character has reappeared in a facetious, Flashman kind of novel called “Banana Republican: From the Buchanan File” by Eric Rauchway, a history professor at the University of California, Davis. It sets Buchanan among historical figures in their period roles during the civil-war violence in 1925-27 Nicaragua, just a few years after Jay Gatsby bathed in the green light glowing on Daisy Buchanan’s East Egg dock.
The novel, presented as a memoir written by Tom, finds him on a short financial leash held by an aunt who now controls the family money and the extent to which he can maintain his polo ponies and mistresses.
So, he can’t refuse her demand that he promote the Buchanans’ railroad interests in Nicaragua by going there and giving away Isthmian Transit & Radio Telegraph shares to influential people in Managua. Tom soon realizes he can do better by manipulating the share price and cashing in for a bundle that will help him remove auntie’s talons from his testicles. He just has to back the right political horse.
His awkward efforts to find that animal amid factional chaos keep him blundering along from coup to siege to gun-running jaunt, with brief stops to bed ever-willing women.
Rauchway has fun with this what-if history, bringing in colorful characters from the Teapot Dome scandal, J. Edgar Hoover, the Red Scare, and a nest of spies. Whether readers will enjoy the conceit depends on their tolerance for often clunky prose and Tom’s frequent ethnic slurs.
Fortunately I was able to distract myself from this frolic of racism by following the trail of the mysterious red-and-white tie, which shows up as:
“the most ghastly red-and-white-striped tie” on page 60;
“a godawful red-and-white tie” on page 126;
“his foul red-and-white tie” on page 138;
“his hideous, grimy red-and-white tie” on page 152;
“a band of cheap silk, patterned with red and white stripes” on page 167.
I suspect it’s a psychological subtheme alluding to the “cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion” Tom shared with Daisy in “The Great Gatsby.” Philandering Tom doesn’t like to be reminded of Daisy or his time as a well-drawn character.
For the history professor, I will note that a slip of the pen or a nod of the copy editor has rendered “spifflicated,” the early-20th-century slang for drunk, as “splifficated,” a neat anachronism. On the other hand, a spliff could only improve all this piffle.
“Banana Republican” is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (237 pages, $25). To order this book in North America, click here.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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