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Book Review: The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King by Rich Cohen


Bananas, it turns out, don't grow on trees, but instead are large herbs and are best classified as berries. The plant, which is actually a tall grass, can grow - from a cutting and not a seed - twenty inches in twenty-four hours. The banana we eat in the United States, the Cavendish variety, is not the one that first graced our grocery store aisles; that banana, the Big Mike, is now extinct. In fact, we get our "slippery banana peel" comedy from the Big Mike, with its slimy skin. To the dismay of grade-school comedians everywhere, the Cavendish isn't slippery at all.

If these banana facts astonish you, you may be delighted to know that these and more are buried in the pages of Rich Cohen's astounding memoir of the fruit - er, berry - and a giant of banana trade, Samuel Zemurray, The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King.

Cohen's masterful telling of Sam Zemurray's rise is, at least on the surface, not unlike the subjects of his other books: Zemurray is a young Jewish immigrant from Russia, at the turn of the 20th century. At first poor and hardworking, through cleverness, calculated risk-taking, and still more hard work, young Zemurray captures part of the banana industry that interest no one. Unlike the apple, the banana doesn't ripen until picked. Bananas in the early 1900s needed to be shipped green so that they could ripen en route. If they were already ripe or near-ripe, they would go bad before reaching their destination. Millions of "freckled" bananas each year were destroyed, but Zemurray saw this as an opportunity. He became the only buyer for these freckled goods and shipped them - quickly as possible - to nearby cities. The strategy turns out to be a good one and soon he is flush with capital. One event leads to another and before the reader knows it, Zemurray is vertically integrating his business before our eyes by buying land and harvesting operations. He's learned Spanish and the locals in Central America love him. When a government policy threatens his growing empire, he hires mercenaries and engineers a successful coup to overthrow a government, much to the dismay of the U.S. presidency. He is an unstoppable fish.

Cohen describes him aptly:

Strength, charisma, shrewdness, power -- his defining characteristics were the sort not recorded in photos or articles, which can make him seem mysterious, strange. What drove him? Didn't he know you can't take it all with you in the end? ...he wanted to win. And would do whatever it took. Here was a self-made man, filled with the most dangerous kind of confidence...This gave him the air of the berserker, who says, If you're going to fight me, you better kill me. If you've ever known such a person, you will recognize the type at once.

As with other tycoons of this bygone era, Zemurray overshoots and loses the favor most readers initially bestow. One might describe him as "dastardly" (as the book jacket does), but his Horatio Alger-like tale captures the essence of the American dream in both a charmingly audacious and wicked way.

I introduce Zemurray as "a" giant of the banana industry purposefully. For all the book's enticing rags-to-riches story weaving, other arguably more important giants of the industry, including the United Fruit co-founder, Minor C. Keith, are largely left on the sidelines, even though that company is "the whale" in the title's metaphor. If the importance of this detail is lost on you, have no fear: as I discovered while researching Cohen's masterful volume, the banana trade has a literary history that rivals that of alcohol, tobacco, and tea. If curiosity strikes, the banana industry rabbit hole is a deep one and you will have no trouble accessing greater knowledge on the "who" and the "how".

The American identity is as wrapped up in idolization of the wealthy business-owning elite as it is in the myth of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. But the tycoons' methods are not always good ones, and so we find ourselves pondering the age-old question: do the ends justify the means? Can a person be both evil and good? While reading this oft-recommended book, I constantly asked myself, "Was Sam Zemurray evil?" A simple but important question.

The answer, for me and, it would seem, Rich Cohen, is also simple but important: it's complicated.

Did he love his wife, his children? Of course he did, but he needed the company more. Think of him as a gambler in the midst of a run, whose mind is fixed on one thing. If he does not look up, it's not because he is shallow or stupid. It's because he knows the moment he looks up, the spell is broken and the game is lost.

I recommend The Fish That Ate the Whale with caution: no good comes from mindless hero worship of wealthy business leaders. Financial success needs linkage to a system of morality for success to have meaning beyond the sum total of bank accounts. If this point is clearly understood, then you will enjoy the zany banana facts, the cautionary tale of power, and the commentary on a culture built on pride in business hidden below this book's surface. If, however, you are simply an aficionado of rags-to-riches stories, don't bother. You need another hero like we need a modern Sam Zemurray.

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