Book Review: Don Quixote, USA by Richard Powell

DonQuixoteUSAThumbby Timothy Lane
Richard Powell wasn’t a very well-known novelist in his day, although three of his books (including this one) were made into movies and this one was also selected as a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book (which is how I first came across it) about 45 years ago. It’s a comedy about a naïve young Peace Corps volunteer from Boston Brahmin stock, one Arthur Peabody Goodpasture, who gets sent to the small Caribbean republic of San Marco (which changes government in the usual Latin American manner, as Goodpasture will have opportunity to learn), best noted for its citizens’ remarkable talent for thievery.

One such native is a little street urchin named Pepe, who adeptly finds ways to rob Goodpasture even as he becomes his “trusted” assistant. Two others are the local dictator, El Toro, and his current aide, the opportunistic and ambitious Carlos Veleta (my favorite literary villain; my favorite TV villain is Miguelito Loveless). El Toro assumes that a peace corps must be a military corps trained to enforce peace, and since his citizens love plotting almost as much as stealing, he could use it. He soon discovers that Goodpasture isn’t what he hoped for, particularly when he doesn’t recognize the CIA (“Committee of International Amity?”). El Toro wonders if anyone could be so ignorant as not to know what the CIA is, and when Goodpasture realizes that he has indeed heard of it, Veleta sighs, “Yes, Generalissimo, it is possible.”

Goodpasture’s specialty is fruit farming, being a specialist in Dwarf Cavendish bananas as opposed to the standard Gros Michele (at the time, I didn’t know that these were actually varieties of bananas). So El Toro sends Goodpasture to work with Veleta (at the latter’s suggestion) to work on an abandoned hacienda. As it happens, the hacienda is located near where the latest rebel group (Los Descalzos, led by El Gavilan) operate – which is convenient, since Veleta’s actual intention is to kill Goodpasture, blame it on the rebels, and use that as leverage for US support (and, of course, his own promotion). But things go awry, and Goodpasture manages to escape – and find himself running into El Gavilan and his chief assistant, Eduardo (formerly a US advertising man).

Running into rebels is a high-risk activity, and Goodpasture (with Pepe, who had also been captured) finds himself repeatedly marked for death (though he naturally doesn’t always realize it). But he also finds himself useful (if nothing else, he’s better at finding food without stealing it from peasants than Los Descalzos – Goodpasture was also a Boy Scout, and learned quite a bit in his day). And somehow, when it’s all done, the new ruler isn’t Carlos Velete but El Gavilan – who actually is Goodpasture (they turn out to look a lot alike). But by now he’s learned his new country’s ways well – when a US representative is unsure if his list of foreign aid wants is worthy of consideration, Goodpasture asks him to reschedule his next meeting with a more senior US offiical – it seems he already had the Soviet representative scheduled for the same time.

Powell was an interesting writer, capable of delightful plots often well-seasoned with humor (though rarely as much as in this book). But he also came up with nice characters, and the villainous Carlos Veleta was one of the best. He’s a pure sociopath, always out to advance himself no matter what the cost to anyone else – but also totally without personal malice. Thus, no matter how many times his plots against Goodpasture fail to kill him, Veleta doesn’t care as long as he personally benefits. But in the end, he learns that honesty can be surprisingly difficult to overcome. • (1720 views)

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6 Responses to Book Review: Don Quixote, USA by Richard Powell

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    That sounds like a rare and intriguing book. It’s lucky that it is available in Kindle format for $4.99. Whatever hardback version exists seems to be a collector’s item. It’s going for $70.00 minimum.

    There are so many books such as this that are wonderful reads but (at least to me) are little known about. I read just such a book a couple years ago: “Battle for Destiny” by Peter John Stephens. I’d picked it up on an entire box of books at a garage sale. And what a truly splendid read it is. You can still find it used at Amazon.com. But otherwise how would anyone ever find out about this wonderful cultural piece of American literature? Well, here, of course.

    Thanks for another splendid review, Timothy.

  2. Anniel says:

    Thank you for this review Timothy. I found it while I was poking around and decided to get it on Kindle. I sat up late so I could continue laughing because it felt so good. My husband bought my first Kindle and thought we could save money on books, now he’s given up on that goal and just sighs. I try to restrain myself but your reviews haven’t helped him much. I think he’s glad he no longer trips over stacks of books though, so maybe he’s ahead.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      This may be the funniest novel I’ve ever read. One of its top competitors for the honor would be another book by Powell, Pioneer, Go Home, which was made into the Elvis Presley movie Follow that Dream. Also of interest by Powell are The Philadelphian (part of which was made into the Paul Newman movie The Young Philadelphians), Tickets to the Devil (about a duplicate bridge tournament), Whom the Gods Destroy (an interesting version of the Trojan War), and The Soldier (set in World War II).

  3. B J Vigour says:

    Nearly 50 years ago, I bought this as a gift for my older brother, choosing it merely by the cover and a mutual penchant for saving banana stickers. It was a cracking read then and I’m looking forward to it the 2nd time around.
    Infuriated by Woody Allen’s robbery of main story and many comic scenes and details, I’ve always said that Bananas’ credits should read: Richard Powell’s hilarious novel brought to the screen by Woody Allen.
    Thank heavens to the drug store chain for having a book display in our little town.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      A friend of mine once mentioned that anyone who liked the book probably didn’t want to see Bananas. But he also mentioned once staying up late at night to see the movie When Worlds Collide, that being perhaps his favorite book (and Philip Wylie his favorite author). When it was over he cried over the wasted time.

  4. Stephanie says:

    This is the book that was made into Woody Allen’s early movie, Bananas. Allen changed the ending a bit but it is basically the same.

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