THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

THE INFORMANT by Kurt Eichenwald

I stumbled onto this book on the bargain shelf at Barnes & Noble. Since it cost practically nothing and looked mildly interesting, I bought it. It went in my TBR bookcase where it languished for years. Oh, occasionally I would pick it up, blow the dust away and read the blurbs and think that it looked mildly interesting, and then place it back on the shelf.

Not long ago, while looking for something to read I picked it up again, and thought, this looks mildly interesting, and decided that I would read it. After all, according to the cover of my paperback copy, it had been made into a major motion picture starring Matt Damon. By the time that I finished the prologue, I was hooked.

It isn’t often that a work of nonfiction can be described as a page-turner – but that is a good description of The Informant. And there are a lot of pages to turn – 500 plus, in fact. Investigative reporter Kurt Eichenwald leaves no stone unturned and no fact unexamined or unreported in his thoroughly researched account of a price fixing conspiracy that occurred in the ‘90’s. Involved in the conspiracy were Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the hugely successful and politically powerful agribusiness corporation, as well as two Japanese and two South Korean corporations.

The prices being fixed included, among others, citric acid and high fructose corn syrup, additives that are found in a countless number of food products. And then there was lysine, an amino acid added to livestock feed, in order to fatten hogs and chickens. The result is that the prices of these additives were artificially propped up and that drove up the expenses of the food producers, which were subsequently passed on to – of course – the consumer.

ADM’s advertising slogan was and is “supermarket to the world.” But because its competitors wanted to keep prices high and its customers wanted to keep them low, the private and extremely cynical inside slogan among its top executives was “competitors are our friends and customers are our enemies.”

I know what I have described thus far doesn’t sound like much of a page-turner. But it is. What makes it so is that the FBI was able to persuade one of ADM’s top executives to wear a wire in order to tape him and other ADM executives and those of the four Asian corporations, engaging in price fixing. This cooperating witness was at the time (and may still be) the highest-ranking corporate whistleblower in U.S. history. His name is Mark Whitacre.

And what a witness he was! I’m not about to go into details about him or his actions because it is impossible to do so in a brief summary. Also, it would be like spoiling the plot in a whodunit – which is how this book reads.

Eichenwald wrote in an afterword:

This is a book about the malleable nature of truth. As the story shows, reality can serve as the handmaiden of fiction….Throughout these pages, I’ve tried to play upon that line between fact and fantasy. While everything described in this book occurred, the story was intentionally structured to lend temporary credence to some of the many lies told in this investigation. Essentially, I was attempting to put readers in the same uncertain position as the investigators, all while dropping hints – admittedly subtle at times – about where reality began.”

He accomplished his goal. But beware; this is a complex, convoluted story. There are more characters than in a Russian novel. The reader needs a scorecard to keep up with the players. Fortunately, Eichenwald provides one in the front of the book. Also, complicating the story are the bureaucratic battles fought between FBI investigators and federal prosecutors (to be expected; it happens all the time) as well as turf battles between the U.S. Attorneys offices in Illinois and the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., not to mention internal struggles within the Justice Department. All of this can make it difficult to stay with the story.

My only complaint about the book is that Eichenwald could have streamlined his account somewhat without detracting from the readers understanding of the important facts of the case. But he had done his research – and how – and he was eager to report it – and did he ever.

The book was originally published in 2000. The movie was released in 2009. While the book gives much attention to the FBI agents’ investigation, and a great deal of space to the efforts of the prosecutors (whose in-fighting came close to derailing the case), the movie, unable to film the book in its entirety, concentrates on the whistleblower and his amazing antics. Greed and malfeasance that results in international price fixing conspiracies are nothing to laugh about, and yet, when one reads the book, one can’t help but laugh at times – even out loud sometime. In fact, the movie was promoted as a comedy – a comedy about price fixing!

The book has been compared to the fiction of Tom Clancy, Scott Turow, Michael Crichton, and, of course, John Grisham. But those writers’ imaginations pale in comparison to what Eichenwald recounts in his nonfiction book. One critic wrote, “…with its dizzying array of subplots, twists, and political maneuvers, this book is more like Grisham’s entire oeuvre compressed into 600 pages.”

Columnist Liz Smith nailed the book precisely when she wrote, “[It] reads like John Grisham on acid….”

The title of the original edition of the book is The Informant: A True Story. The title of the paperback movie tie-in (published in 2000) that I own is The Informant! A True Story.  I am always wary of book, and especially movie, titles that announce that the story is a “true story.” More times than not, it isn’t. But this one is.

Exclamation marks in titles are red flags, too. They usually promise more than what they deliver. This one was added because the movie, which heavily concentrates on Mark Whitacre and his role in the proceedings, has to be seen to be believed. But it is true, too. And I have to admit that in this case the exclamation mark is warranted!

As a friend said about the book, “Truth (even when it’s built around lies) is and always will be stranger than fiction.”

Kurt Eichenwald

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