The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King
By Rich Cohen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pages, $27
The cover of Rich Cohen’s engrossing tale of the life of Sam Zemurray shows a banana sprouting from Zemurray’s head like a big curved penis. If you accept that analogy, then Zemurray’s head occupies the position of a lone and scrotally wrinkly testicle, and you have to feel for that testicle, which seems to be sustaining the towering erection above without the help of its wonted companion.
I say what I learned from Cohen more in sincerity than in derision: Sam Zemurray really was that testicle. He was a font of rugged masculinity, a warrior, a “tough Jew,” as Cohen likes to say. He was, according to Cohen, “a berserker, who says, ‘if you’re going to fight me, you better kill me.’”
Zemurray began with nothing. He was a Russian-Jewish immigrant from the shtetl. He peddled cast-off bananas in the American South, played the game of chicken with every enemy and problem, and eventually helmed the largest fruit conglomerate in the world.
Along the way, he overthrew the sovereign government of Honduras (in 1911), possibly had Huey Long killed, leveraged the United Nations votes needed from Central and South America to pass Resolution 181 (which acknowledged Israel’s independence) and overthrew the sovereign government of Guatemala (in 1954), unintentionally inspiring Che Guevara and Fidel Castro to communist revolution.
With his nimble narrative journalism, Cohen makes a convincing case that the somewhat obscure Sam Zemurray was in fact a major figure in American history. Cohen does so with a prose briskly accented with sights, sounds and smells, and invigorated with offhand wisdom about the human journey through life. What’s rarer about Cohen’s style is his skill with metaphor. His are apt and concise, but they’re also complex.
Sam Zemurray’s bellicose personality suited him to bananas, and not only because of their scimitar shape and their associations with lower-order primates. The metaphor is more interesting than that in Cohen’s hands. The hugeness of the banana business, Cohen explains, corresponded to an underlying smallness — on the dual levels of agriculture and psychology. It seems that bananas, like Jews, are extremely perishable. The fruit ripens and rots if you look at it the wrong way, so storms can devastate the crop, and any delays on its long supply routes can ruin it as marketable produce.
Zemurray and others took size and strength as the anodyne against the banana’s fragility. They bought more plantations; they brutalized their competitors and detractors. Is this not also the comfort that Jews take in Israel? After centuries of vulnerability from exile, ostracism and genocide, the Jews consolidated their numbers and, for the first time since antiquity, raised an army. Does the correspondence between susceptibility and martial strength in fact lie close to the aching heart of masculinity itself?