Friday, March 28, 2008

Upton Sinclair’s Oil!

Whenever I travel out of town, I like to check out the local independent bookstores. A month or so ago in San Francisco, I happened upon Browser Books, on a trendy stretch of Fillmore Street. This tiny, crammed, and superbly stocked shop was filled with backlist gems that would make any independent bookseller weep with joy.

I was with my friend Janet, who found her treasure in a copy of Kathleen Norris’s Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Wanting to contribute to the independent cause, I scanned the front table and saw a stack of Oil!, with its sinister-black movie cover linking it to There Will Be Blood. Having guiltily put off reading The Jungle for years, I suddenly felt that the time had come for Upton Sinclair. That night, while Janet slept in the twin bed across from me, in our $50-a-night, seventh-floor room in The Astoria overlooking the Chinatown Gate, I devoured the first fifty pages.

Usually, the terms “social commentary” and “page turner” don’t go hand in hand, but as Sinclair unfolds the story of Southern California oil discovery, oilmen, wildcatting, Wobblies, communists, and the Teapot Dome Scandal during the first quarter of the 1900s, he throws in a great story, which also includes movie stars, jazz, the subconscious mind, and even a nod to Aimee Semple McPherson, in the guise of a young preacher man. This is a first-rate potboiler, and at the same time a lesson in how in the heck we got into Iraq. Oil, greed, greed, and oil, with a little more oil and greed and lots of corruption thrown in for good measure.

Anchoring the book, Bunny grows from a teenager to a young man, struggling between his loyalty to his oilman dad, who has an intriguing, but ultimately dangerous, code of ethics, and the unfairly treated oil workers. He loves his father, and his father loves him, as is clear when he doesn’t chastise Bunny for getting involved with the enemy. It is this mutual love that creates much of the book’s tension, not between the two men, but between one man, Bunny, and his conscious. Every angle is worked, including the always fascinating trait of neutrality, which is—no big plot spoiler—never neutral in the end.

One of the great things about Oil!, as I mentioned about An American Tragedy, is how timely it feels (despite all the terrific period details). There is something very current about it, in the characters and the issues. Or perhaps that’s the bummer about it. Haven’t we learned any lessons yet? Apparently not, given the question posed in the last pages: Could a civilization endure on the basis of such purchase of government? Certainly the current US regime is answering that.

With a setting in Southern California, Oil! also returns relevance to the oil wells that pierce the land in this part of the country. Not those towers we’re used to seeing in movies about Texas, but the bobbing contraptions that look, ironically, like the skeletons of dinosaurs. They are atmospheric background, like palm trees, for anyone who lives here, taking the back road to LAX or driving around the South Bay. Having passed them for so many years, you are used to them, and even feel a fondness for them. If you are attached to that sentimentality, then I don’t suggest reading Oil! But if you’re aching for change, it’s a terrific substantiation of why this country so badly needs it.

If you’re up in San Francisco, make sure to support this shop:

Brower Books
2195 Fillmore St.
San Francisco, CA 94115

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Where have you been all my life, Richard Yates?

Do you ever stumble across a writer and wonder, “Where have you been all my life?”

Having finished reading the short story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, I pose this question to the ghost of Richard Yates. Funny thing is, I’d already stumbled across him a few years ago, when a friend suggested that I read Revolutionary Road. I did, and it was good, but I didn’t give Yates further thought until I read a post last December in The New York Times’ book review blog, “Paper Cuts.” In it the writer suggested giving short story collections for Christmas gifts, offered a few of his favorites, and asked for recommendations. There followed 119 comments from readers.

I perused these comments and saw this from a man named Lawrence Tate: “And jeez, how the hell can there be nearly 60 posts on this subject without anyone mentioning Richard Yates?! If one is choosing collections apart from his Complete Stories, I’d go with the first, Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness. If any short story book of the last century holds up, that one sure does.”

When I was younger, I had a love/hate relationship with short stories. I wanted so badly to like them, but I always found them dissatisfying because they were so … short. I like getting to know characters over time; I like plot development. Short stories are unable to offer that. But lately, I had been thinking about them, wanting to figure them out, these small, self-contained creatures. And when I read that title, containing loneliness, not to mention eleven kinds of it, I felt inspired to give short stories a shot again. I made my request at the local library, and within a few days I had an early-1960s, cloth-bound copy of the book in hand.

I read the first story, “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern,” one early morning over a cup of tea. I was struck by its miserable beauty. I wanted to skip work and finish reading the whole book that day. But I knew I’d be sorry when I was done, for precisely the reason that I would be done, so I rationed myself, a story a morning before I started work. I’ve always been an early riser, but suddenly, I was awake before six, and well into a story as the sun came up each day. Before I’d even finished the collection, I knew I had to own it, and ordered a copy of The Collected Stories of Richard Yates.

In the introduction to this collection, Richard Russo writes: "Yates understood that while we risk disappointment when we set for ourselves an ambitious goal and fail to achieve it, the challenge, in a sense, insulates us from the worst humiliation. Dream big and we’re expected to fail. About the worse that can happen … is that we’ll be applauded for our pluck. Dream small, Yates seems to suggest, and we’re expected to succeed. As a result, failure ensures not just disappointment, but humiliation, anguish, and, most dangerous of all, the impulse to dream smaller next time, thereby risking even greater failure."

Oh, those small, small dreams. In the story “A Glutton for Punishment,” the main character, Walter Henderson, dreams not of success. Instead:

There was certainly no denying that the role of a good loser had always held an inordinate appeal for him. All through adolescence he had specialized in it, gamely losing fights with stronger boys, playing football badly in the secret hope of being injured and carried dramatically off the field … College had offered a wider scope to his talent—there were exams to be flunked and elections to be lost—and later the Air Force had made it possible for him to wash out, honorably, as a flight cadet …

Yes, a story about a man who dreams of failing, and because it’s a Yates’ story, chances are, he’s going to fail at that. They’re all going to fail, but knowing this doesn’t mean you know how each story will end. At first, once you’ve read a couple, you think you do, but each time a story draws to a close, Yates, with his exquisitely discreet talent, surprises you. By the time you read the last stories, you are bracing yourself.

I have never before read someone who so ably transferred his characters’ discomfort onto me, so I felt that I was the patient in the tuberculosis sanitarium trying not to let it show that he wanted to read Sports Illustrated rather than talk to his visiting wife, or the journalist overhearing his pathetic co-worker being berated by their boss. I can’t give any more details than that, because firstly, I could never do them justice, and secondly, I don’t want to give anything away. Even though these are not the kinds of stories with things in them to be given away, they are meant to be read without preface. They are meant to be experienced as the experience in the story is taking place.

While I thought I’d made the discovery of the century in Richard Yates, a Google search reveals that he has a loyal following, from Average Joes like me, to writers like Kurt Vonnegut, who declared, “The best short-story collection ever written by an American.” And then, of course, there is Raymond Carver, whose writing apparently owes quite a debt to Yates.

Yates’ moving stories are of a white-collar culture in a post-WWII time period dominated by Cheever and early Updike. Wives put on lipstick and pour from cocktail pitchers before dinner (adult dinner, which is served after the children have eaten and gone to bed), and TB patients smoke in the sanitarium. While I admire Cheever, and accept that Updike is a skilled and even insightful writer (though he’s never really grabbed me), they are, I realize, fakes. By that I mean simply that they are not Richard Yates.

Yates’ writing does not console. By addressing loneliness, by naming it and exposing it, he does not make us feel less lonely, as most other writers do. Rather, he makes us understand that the fundamental nature of loneliness means it is something that can never be bridged and must always, ultimately, be suffered alone.