Ever think one of a novel's secondary characters deserved his own book? Historian Eric Rauchway did, and the result is his first novel, Banana Republican: From the Buchanan Files.
The book's narrator is Tom Buchanan, the ruthless, philandering, old-money-rich husband of Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic 1925 novel The Great Gatsby. In Rauchway's fast-paced, satirical novel, set not long after the events of Gatsby, Buchanan is having money and marital troubles (golden girl Daisy is a bit tarnished).
At the behest of his Aunt Gertrude, who holds the purse strings to the family's fortune, he goes to Nicaragua to pursue their business interests — which means cheerfully immersing himself in bribery, corruption, arms trading and sundry other reprehensible activities.
Rauchway grew up in St. Petersburg and graduated from Shorecrest Preparatory School in 1987. His parents, Dr. Michael Rauchway and Audrey Rauchway, live in St. Pete Beach.
A professor at the University of California at Davis for nine years, Rauchway earned his Ph.D. at Stanford and has also taught at the University of Nevada and Oxford University. He's the author of several nonfiction books, including Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America and Blessed Among Nations.
He talked by phone about Banana Republican and his connections with St. Petersburg.
Did your interest in history begin while you were growing up in St. Petersburg?
Yes. In middle school and high school, I had a great teacher, Brad Moore. I had history classes with him in eighth, 11th and 12th grade. He's a terrific teacher. If I'm any good as a teacher, it's partly owing to Brad.
Banana Republican has a lot to do with politics as well as history. It's hard to separate the two, but did your interest in politics also begin early?
Oh, yes. In 1980, when I was in the sixth grade, we had a mock (presidential) election. It's my memory that my camp won: John Anderson. That just goes to show you how accurate that was. Nobody even remembers John Anderson any more.
What inspired you to take a character from The Great Gatsby and create a whole novel around him?
People always see Gatsby as the novel about the American dream. But the character who represents that dream of upward mobility ends up floating facedown in a swimming pool. Tom Buchanan represents the real American dream: having it all and not having to suffer the consequences. I wanted to get away from the somewhat suspect view of the narrator in Gatsby and let Tom speak for himself.
Why did you find him an intriguing character?
People like this really do run America in a lot of ways. (In Gatsby) he's a terrible human being, but it's never clear how smart he is, so I thought, let's find out.
What was it like to write the book in his voice?
He was great fun to write, although he's incredibly unpleasant. Sometimes I had to remove myself from his company; you feel real soiled after a while. Good characters have the power to seduce you into seeing the world their way. For it to be genuine, I really had to put myself into that way of thinking, even though his views on subjects like women and racial minorities are just terrible.
Did you settle on Buchanan as a narrator first, or did you begin with the story's setting in Nicaragua in the 1920s, during a period of political unrest and U.S. military intervention?
Setting was second. I was interested in writing about the irresponsibility of American foreign policy, so if you take Tom Buchanan in the 1920s, where are we? We're in Nicaragua. When you look at American foreign policy, in Europe we do pretty well. In South America, not so much. And there's that tradition in places that are on the edges of empire: Dissolute people get to go there and act badly and no one calls them on it.
Do you see parallels between the era you wrote about and the present?
Well, if you think about the '20s, it was an era of go-go capitalism. New technology was driving the market. It was the peak era for the respectability of American racism. And we were involved in all these foreign interventions, so nobody was paying much attention to what was going on at home, so — well, we know what happened in 1929.
Did you have to do extensive research to employ that setting?
No, I thought that was the whole point of fiction. You get to make stuff up. I did enough to get the setting right. But one vice of many historical novels is the author going, "Look how proud I am of my research." I wanted to do this for fun. It's much more fun to make stuff up than to look stuff up.
You've published several serious nonfiction books about American history. How did you get this satirical first novel published?
I employed one of the highly traditional methods. I met my editor in New York, we went out to dinner and had a lot to drink, then we went to a bar and had a lot more to drink, and we decided this would be a good book to publish.
Are you looking forward to your book signing in St. Petersburg this week?
Yes, Haslam's is where I used to shop for books when I was a kid. I'm very happy to be back there as an author.