Saturday, February 16, 2008

Oil!

Oil!, by Upton Sinclair
$10.20 at Amazon.com
ISBN: 978-0-14-311226-6
The author is more famous for his novel The Jungle, about the meat industry in industrial Chicago. This novel has been recently released as a movie called There Will Be Blood. I haven't seen the film yet, but the book sounded interesting, Upton Sinclair is outstanding, and even though it was written in 1926, the topic is quite timely.
Obviously, it's about the early oil industry, although there's a lot of other stuff in here, too. The protagonist is named Bunny (a la Eminem in 8 Mile). He's a young boy at the beginning of the story and we follow him as he becomes a man and grapples with the complex ethical issues involved in his family business. His dad has become a millionaire through "wildcatting", searching the American west for untapped oil fields.
How the whole system works is simply too complicated to get into here. Let's just say that Bunny enjoys the privelege that comes with being in an upper-management family, but soon becomes keenly aware that oil drilling is not always so great for the people on the ground.
Most notably, Bunny becomes friends with a young firebrand named Paul, who lives hand-to-mouth working in the dangerous fields. Paul is an advocate of a living wage for all American workers, labor unions, and an eight hour work day: all virtually unheard of but desperately petitioned for at the time. These demands seem reasonable enough to Bunny, but his father's half of the story has convinced him that the situation is not as simple as it seems.
Greedy townspeople fight with one another to get good prices when selling their land to oil companies, yet feel swindled once the wells start flowing. Striking workers bring production to a halt, only to have their efforts frustrated by "scabs", higher paid temporary employees who fill in while the regulars are on the picket line. Indeed, it appeared as if the whole world was one elaborate system, opposed to justice and kindness, and set to making cruelty and pain.
We don't spend all our time at the drill tower and refinery, though. World War I is happening, and we get a fascinating picture of Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. Also, Bunny falls in love, then out of 
it, then back in again.
This is a quintessential, American novel. Freedom, industrialization, and capitalism were coming to the fore. People were beginning to realize, however, that all the prosperity had a hidden dark side. As cheap gasoline was pumped into thousands of American cars, few considered the suffering and death necessary to pull each gallon from the ground.
Thank god that doesn't happen any more, right?
Right?!