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:
2195 Fillmore St.
San Francisco, CA 94115