Some people may consider it a waste of my access to books, but I don’t read many fiction titles. I wouldn’t personally bother creating stories when so many truly great ones have actually happened already and have long since slipped from our collective cultural memory. Tycoon’s War: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America’s Most Famous Military Adventurer recounts such a story almost too fantastic to be fiction but too obscure to be widely known – that of William Walker and Cornelius Vanderbilt in Nicaragua in the 1850s. Despite the long title, its not some Doris Kearns Goodwin tome – it’s the length of an Eric Larson book and every bit as gripping to read. Also the book isn’t as focused on the miserly shipping magnate from Staten Island as you’d think from the title. The show is completely stolen by William Walker, a former child prodigy whose hubris led him to believe he could ‘liberate’ all of Central America. In an effort to spread his version of republicanism, boyish looking Walker worked with Vanderbilt’s ocean steamer and overland line through Nicaragua that connected the East and West of the United States in the time before the Panama Canal or the westward expansion of our rail system. Walker received transport for his wayward American filibusteros and a reliable supply chain and in return Vanderbilt thought he was investing in a Nicaragua free of civil-war for his overland route and future plans to construct a canal through the country. Walker ended up betraying Vanderbilt and the latter’s quest for revenge precipitated an escalation in the war so significant that it altered the history of Honduras and Costa Rica as well. I won’t ruin the rest of the story by continuing to type, so check it out yourself.
If this piques your interest but you don’t think you’ll have the patience for a whole book about it, check out the Alex Cox’s 1987 film Walker. Walker is played by a young Ed Harris and Joe Strummer writes fantastic music, makes questionable sound direction choices, and even appears in the film as an extra. The director took a darkly comical approach to the ridiculous existence of a man like William Walker. By the end of the film, Cox threw out all the pretenses of a historical period piece to show how topical the story was becoming again. Whether its Chesty Puller (generally awesome dude) receiving his major’s commission from the Nicaraguan National Guard in the 1920s, the Reagan administration disobeying congress to continue military operations against Ortega’s Sandinistas, constant Chinese attempts to get a canal carved into Lake Nicaragua, or just this year when a Florida-based mercenary group tried depose Nicolas Maduro – some arrogant foreigner is always thinking they can push their way through poorer parts of Latin America and it usually doesn’t end well. In this way Walker’s story is not exceptional – but the short and strange life he experienced certainly was. I recommend you dive into this bizarre, severely-flawed character from a long forgotten episode of American history because it makes for some fantastic and surprisingly relevant entertainment.