The Ten Gallon Schemes Of Texas Dreamers


By Edward Zuckerman Viking -- 296pp -- $ 19.95

During the late 1830s, thousands of impoverished tenant farmers scrawled GTT--gone to Texas--on cabin doors across the Old South and moved to the newly independent Lone Star State. They fled crop liens and the eroded, used-up soil of Alabama and Georgia to claim large tracts of virgin prairie, free for the taking. "Big country . . . fed big dreams," one historian wrote of America. And Texas fed some of the biggest dreams of all.

Grand ambitions didn't beget many great fortunes, though. The lucky few found wealth raising cattle, and later, drilling for oil. The many just scraped by, but even so, Texas became the repository of American dreams, and generations journeyed there hoping to strike it rich. The aura of wealth attracted people who lived gaudily and, often enough, went bankrupt. It's no coincidence that Texas is the epicenter of the thrift crisis.

Like so many others before him, author Edward Zuckerman was seduced by the spirit of Texas ("which is America but more so," he writes). Small Fortunes: Two Guys in Pursuit of the American Dream is his splendid ode to the state and its citizens. At once sad and amusing, it traces the rise and fall of two entrepreneurs who try to grab the golden ring in 1980s Texas, while around them thrifts blow up, the infamous cavort, and fortunes are squandered. The men's ambitions, it soon becomes clear, run way ahead of their abilities.

Zuckerman sweeps us quickly into the mundane yet incredible lives of his subjects. Peter Binion, a native Texan, intends to become a cattle baron by marketing a little-known breed. Ohio-born Jim Teal devoutly believes he'll make millions selling T-shirts featuring characters from the comic strips Bloom County and Shoe.

Teal comes closer to riches, and his fall is dramatic. But it's Binion, a Texas A&M grad, Vietnam veteran, and rodeo bull rider, whose visions soar higher. Binion's college studies introduced him to cattle breeding and to an obscure strain from St. Croix known as Senepol, noted for its lean meat, red coat, and heat tolerance. Convinced he has hit on a way to reverse the declining fortunes of the beef industry and create a new export product, Binion sinks his money into a ranch.

He's in trouble from the start. His efforts to raise money through limited partnerships fail. Bad luck plays a role, as Zuckerman notes: "The deal appeared to be all but set when one of the investors was found dead of a shotgun blast in his Cadillac." Cattle sales to shadowy figures in Sri Lanka, Argentina, and Guatemala collapse. When cash-strapped Texas banks foreclose on the ranch and Binion retreats to the hazardous-waste-disposal business, you can't help but feel his loss.

Teal, on the other hand, is already wealthy when the book opens. Zuckerman vividly retells his rise from chicken-breader at an Ohio Kentucky Fried Chicken store to an owner of bars featuring male strippers. Teal sums up his approach to life when he tells Zuckerman of an encounter with some young hoodlums on a window-breaking spree during his days at KFC. "We were going to shoot them if they came over," he recalls. "This was all against the rules of Kentucky Fried Chicken, of course."

As the first store manager of the Wendy's hamburger chain, Teal amassed stock options that made him a millionaire. And after he moved to Texas, he did well with his bars. But other, ill-starred ventures put a dent in his bounty. His hot-tub rental business was clobbered by the herpes scare. Then an effort to market high-tech phones soured. Writes Zuckerman: "The biggest problem with the phones, from Jim's point of view, was that they would occasionally explode. He had one in his house, and when it burst into flames one day, he called the business quits."

Teal and his partner in the T-shirt venture, Gary Shuster, are devoted to sophomoric high jinks that Zuckerman manages to describe without ever being insulting or judgmental. We accompany them, among other places, on a topless golf outing attended not only by drunks and bare-breasted women but also by the fierce Texas fire ant. Here Zuckerman offers an important advisory for those who venture to Texas: "If you brush off fire ants with your hands, you get fire ants on your hands, as the visitor from New York learned about five seconds too late."

To finance such fast living and to continually expand their business, Teal and Shuster draw on their profits and then start borrowing recklessly. As a consequence, their company fails, and Teal is wiped out.

Recklessness, Zuckerman understands, defines Texas. Its thrifts are a case in point. At Austin's Lamar Savings, Teal gets a loan in exchange for little more than a handshake. But that's not so surprising: At the same time, the thrift is busy applying for federal approval to open a branch on the moon.

Zuckerman, a Spy contributing editor, writes with grace and wit, his sharp style buttressed by his ear for dialogue, as when he catches one of Binion's investors moaning: "I just wanted the cattle for relaxation." About the only weak point is his tendency to end chapters with portentous comments, several of which fall flat.

Zuckerman captures the essence of Texas and renders Texans in all their mind-bending complexity: driven to excess, devoted to family, always looking for an angle, yet somehow retaining their idealism. They're admirably resilient, even in their folly. Elsewhere, bankruptcy and depression might break the spirit. But as we leave Teal and Binion, they're both plotting comebacks.

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