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Debt Before Dishonor : SMALL FORTUNES: Two Guys in Pursuit of the American Dream. By Edward Zuckerman (Viking Penguin: $19.95; 296 pp.)

January 20, 1991|Frank Rose | Rose's most recent book is "West of Eden , " published by Viking

What is it about entrepreneurship that leads functioning adults to hock everything--house, fortune, family, self--in pursuit of some cockamamie scheme to, say, open a ladies-only male stripper bar in the desert outside Phoenix, or introduce an obscure breed of Virgin Islands cattle to the Texas plains?

Conventional wisdom, fed by the success stories of H. Ross Perot, Steven Jobs and Donald Trump, holds that the entrepreneurial urge is rooted in some sacred combination of money-lust, self-reliance and untutored genius. But after reading "Small Fortunes," Edward Zuckerman's wryly amusing tale of two Horatio Alger wanna-bes in Texas, one can only conclude that dementia belongs at the top of the list.

Jim Teal and Pete Binion, the dual subjects of Zuckerman's backhanded paean to the American Dream, have less in common with the Donald than with Ralph Kramden, the hapless bus driver in "The Honeymooners" whose get-rich-quick schemes backfired weekly. Teal, 37 when the book begins, is a fast-food millionaire from Columbus, Ohio--he got in on the ground floor at Wendy's--who, having augmented his fortune with the stripper bar and depleted it selling telephones that blew up, decides there's a killing to be made in the T-shirt business. Binion, 36, is a Texas A & M grad student and aspiring cattle baron who sets out to write his thesis on the Senepol, a gentle, heat-tolerant breed from St. Croix, and ends up importing them in partnership with a Houston physician whose wife thinks red cattle will look nice against the green pastures of their weekend ranch. When Binion needs more capital, he looks in the Yellow Pages under "investment bankers" and starts spending in anticipation of the money that's sure to come.

In alternating chapters, Zuckerman tells the stories of Teal and Binion--two poignant, parallel, weirdly funny sagas of sputtering rise and meteoric descent. Teal goes on a topless golfing tournament; Binion plants embryos in cows. Teal visits a novelty show in New York, checking out board games with names like Party 'Til You Puke and marveling at the popularity of flatulence-related gift items; Binion works a cattle show in the Astrodome under a sign that reads, "Senepol--The Cattleman's Edge." Teal signs up Berke Breathed, a former University of Texas student whose cartoons he'd noticed while running a chain of Wendy's in Austin. Binion flies to Guatemala with four cows and meets Fernando Somoza, nephew of the deposed Nicaraguan dictator. Somoza is not interested. Neither, it turns out, is anyone else.

Of the two, the woefully earnest Binion is far more endearing than Teal, a bloated party animal who distinguished himself in his salad days by bouncing off a road divider in his brother's RX-7 and driving it home on three wheels and an axle end. (How was he to know it wasn't just a flat?) Binion spent his youth riding rodeo bulls and nursing broken bones.

Zuckerman, a New York TV writer ("Miami Vice," "Law and Order") and magazine reporter (Rolling Stone, Esquire, Spy), presents them both in a dry, deadpan style that flirts with snideness but never quite commits to it. Though the book includes brief and informative treatises on such subjects as cattle raising on St. Croix and the fast-food business in the Ohio Valley in the 1960s, its stock-in-trade is the snappy anecdote and the absurd detail--absurdity being the one commodity that's never in short supply.

Yet at the end, when Binion has lost the ranch and is facing bankruptcy, Zuckerman drops his arch facade long enough to shell out $250 so Binion can hire a lawyer to sue the bank that's trying to put him under.

The end, of course, comes all too soon for Teal and Binion. Capital is scarce in Texas in the mid-'80s, and marginal ventures no longer have much appeal to investors. The savings-and-loan that fueled Teal's earlier expansion has dropped its plans to open a branch on the moon, and gone bust. The government decides to limit tax shelters just as Binion's cattle partnership goes on the market.

With disaster looming, both men lose all semblance of rationality. T-shirt orders are pouring in, but Teal's company can't pay its suppliers; yet the arrival of a long-awaited $500,000 check from a group of New York investors finds him sitting at his desk, day-dreaming about opening a miniature golf course. Binion's cattle business is so bad he has to sell second-rate specimens for hamburger; to bring in cash, he opens a feed store (on a good day it nets $15) and makes plans to launch a fish farm.

In the current economic climate, with debt high, money tight and entrepreneurs of far greater stature than Teal and Binion scrambling to save their empires, this little saga takes on a peculiar resonance. Wisely, however, Zuckerman refrains from drawing any larger lessons. Yes, Teal and Binion are seriously overextended, just like the rest of the country. But their real problem is their tenuous grip on reality--Teal's addiction to flash at the expense of his creditors, Binion's steadfast refusal to recognize that most ranchers just aren't all that interested in a bunch of red cattle from St. Croix.

What does all this tell us about America? Just that it's a crazy place where two ordinary guys have the same opportunity to lose their shirts as does the world's glitziest real-estate developer. Maybe even a better one.

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