Two Guys in Pursuit of the American Dream

By Edward Zuckerman

Viking. 296 pp. $19.95

This sobering yet funny and engaging book is the story of Jim Teal and Pete Binion, two men who have never met each other and who have relatively little in common, yet who pursued the same dream in the same place during the same time. Teal and Binion are both Texans -- the former adoptive, the latter native -- and for a time both were entrepreneurs, chasing one of the most alluring fantasies of the Reagan years: "Both Jim and Pete had emerged from modest backgrounds to invent their own lives; entrepreneurship was the door that would open on the lives they wanted."

The avenues they chose could scarcely have been more different. Jim Teal -- "a big man, friendly and witty and outgoing" -- had come to Texas from Ohio after building up a small stake and had developed an instinct for cashing in on the human appetite for mindless diversion. For a time he tried his hand at the likes of hot-tub rentals and male-stripper bars; during the period when Edward Zuckerman followed his affairs, he was trying to make his fortune through the manufacture and sale of T-shirts adorned with pictures and witticisms from comic strips.

Pete Binion by contrast was a steady-as-she-goes Texan who had done his time in Vietnam and had come back determined both to rise above his meager origins and to contribute, somehow, to the general welfare. By heritage he was a rancher and a cattleman; in time he came to believe that his mission was to spread throughout Texas the word about a breed of cattle called Senepol, a breed he had become convinced was ideally suited to the Texas climate -- "its meat was fine, its fertility was excellent, and it had always been praised for its 'gentle, pet-like' disposition."

It can be argued -- though Zuckerman does not -- that Pete was in serious business and Jim was not, the difference between cattle-breeding and comic-strip T-shirts being approximately the same as the difference between the real world and Disney World. But however disparate the courses they followed, they were headed -- or at least hoped they were headed -- in the same direction. As Zuckerman writes of another participant in the "gift industry" in which Jim hoped to prosper: "He'd had a dream, the same dream that motivated thousands of other would-be gift industry entrepreneurs: to be independent, to be creative, to come up with a clever idea and make a lot of money."

Making money: It's what the vast majority of Americans dream about, it's the spark plug that keeps the American economy on the move, yet it's a gift given to surprisingly few of us. Jim had it, Pete didn't. Jim could sell a T-shirt to an Eskimo and charm an investor out of a $500,000 loan; Pete, earnest and determined though he was, didn't have that rare talent for turning hope into cash, for stacking deal on top of deal and shuffling the deck into his own particular vision of the good life.

Pete probably never had a chance. The agricultural fairs of Texas and other rural states are filled with exhibitors pushing dozens of unknown breeds; Pete never figured how to make his Senepol cattle stand out from the crowd, never developed the gift of glib that the marketplace demands. He had a few near-misses, but none of them paid off and in time he had to sell the ranch; but he learned his lesson and emerged from the experience ready to take himself in a different direction, one with less potential for glamour and profit, to be sure, but one that seems to give him pleasure and fulfillment.

As for Jim, how his meteoric trip ends up is for Zuckerman to tell. In contrast to the more stolid Pete, Jim is a party animal, one of those wild and crazy guys whose rowdiness, however irresponsible, has a certain undeniable appeal; of the two main characters in "Small Fortunes," Jim may not be the most admirable but he's certainly the most interesting. His experience is also, in light of recent developments, probably the most instructive; as he careens along on his high-wire act, always staying one loan ahead of bankruptcy proceedings, he serves as personification of all the wild and crazy business deals of the Reagan years.

As Zuckerman understands, in their different ways both Jim and Pete are American prototypes, people who believe in something -- whether substantial or trivial is beside the point -- and are willing not merely to take risks in the hope of accomplishing it but to suffer the consequences of failure. In the end what he's written about them is a cautionary tale, but it's also a terrific entertainment.