Stop me if you’ve heard this before: poor immigrant arrives on American shores, battles the odds, and ultimately builds a corporate empire. It may sound like another well-worn literary cliché, but Rich Cohen’s picaresque of banana kingpin Sam Zemurray ably skirts any impulse to pigeonhole his work as derivative. The Fish That Ate the Whale sweeps the reader into a rich early twentieth century tableau, exploring a deep and conflicted character in Zemurray. The expert exploration of such a colorful character allows Cohen to construct a sprawling narrative without overreaching. The writer documents Zemurray’s travels from impoverished New Orleans banana peddler, to Honduran political schemer, and ultimately to his ascendance as chairman of United Fruit. Cohen weaves a well-researched biography of Zemurray, a detailed history of the international banana trade, and a concise overview of late colonial Central America, into one compelling story.
Beyond just telling Zemurray’s remarkable story, the author examines the morality of the protagonist’s actions. Zemurray attempts to mitigate the fallout from his meddling in several Central American nations through generous anonymous giving, or tsedakah. Zemurray donated most of his sizable fortune to Tulane University and the early Zionist movement. While his philanthropic efforts should not be overlooked, it is apparent that the beneficiaries of his generosity were not the indigenous populations devastated by his quest for endless profits. In fact, it was only late in his life that Zemurray recognized the damage he caused in Latin America as head of United Fruit. Of this late realization, Cohen writes, “If he had questioned the workings of this machine, he would have been a great man, but he was not a great man.” Readers will delight in the opportunity to consider the motivations and ethics of such a complicated real-life character.