Guatemala's Central Railroad, circa 1920. (Library of Congress)

In the early 1900s, Puerto Barrios, in Guatemala, was on the cusp of becoming a thriving Caribbean port town. It was the bustling terminus for trains hauling produce for the United Fruit Company. From there, bananas were shipped north to the port of New Orleans and, thereafter, to destinations all over the United States.

By the late 1930s, things had changed dramatically. Puerto Barrios’ indigenous charms had been all but eradicated, replaced by filth and destitution. It was inhabited mostly by Afro-Guatemalans and West Indians who worked on the docks for pitiful wages; those with means were advised to get out of town as fast as they could.

It is here that we meet Samuel Berkow, the well-to-do German Jewish bachelor at the center of The Price of Escape, a new novel by David Unger. Berkow arrives in Guatemala from Hamburg, where the Nazi noose had begun to tighten around him. Berkow expects his arrival to mark the beginning of a new and exciting life. Instead, in just three days, Puerto Barrios—with its demons, drunks, and thugs—nearly finishes him off.

Unger, a Guatemala-born, Brooklyn-based writer, speaks with Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry about the relationship of Samuel Berkow’s history to his own, about the appeal of creating only semi-sympathetic protagonists, and about why most of his relatives refuse to read his work. [Running time: 15:16]  .