I had high hopes for Oil! by Upton Sinclair. Theses hopes rested in part on There Will Be Blood (2007), a movie based on the novel, a movie I loved. But the film, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, shares the “idea” of Sinclair’s novel, but not its plot. Yet it wasn’t just the movie that made me think I would love Oil!; the first third of the book was a page-turner that kept me excited for the next reading session. Though the remaining two-thirds of the novel told an interesting story—one I’m glad I had read—it ceased to be the page-turner of the beginning, and it failed to live up to my high hopes.
Oil! is a coming-of-age novel about James Arnold Ross, Jr., also called Bunny to help distinguish him from his father. J. Arnold Ross, Sr. is a successful oilman who’s on the verge of leveraging that success into great wealth. Since he wants his son to follow in his footsteps, he takes Bunny out of school and on the road with him. They drive around California, scouting drilling locations, negotiating oil leases, and bribing local politicians. Ross tells his son that this is the behind-the-curtain look at how big business works. At first, Bunny is thrilled to be a part of this, but after he befriends Paul Watkins, a labor organizer, Bunny realizes his sympathies lie with the workers and not with the greedy men, like his father, who exploit them.
We follow Bunny from his school years through college and to his early career as the publisher of a radical newspaper. Since he loves his father and enjoys the lifestyle oil money gives him, he’s a torn protagonist. The mechanism of Oil! places Bunny in a rivalry between his father and Paul, each man battling for Bunny’s sympathies and support. On that level, the plot is a rivalry plot, but at its heart, it’s a rise-and-fall story detailing the career of J. Arnold Ross, Sr. with Bunny as our witness. He serves as the reader’s surrogate witness in that behind-the-curtain look at big business.
That started the other on one of his stock themes. Business was business, and not the same as a tea-party. Property was hard to get, and, as he had told his son many times, there was always people trying to take it away from you. If there was going to be any security for wealth, there had to be discipline, and men of wealth had to stand together. It might seem harsh, if you didn’t understand, but it was the way of life. Look at that war over there in Europe; it was a horrile thing—jist make you sick to think about it; but there it was, and if you was in it, you was in, and you had to fight. It was exactly the same with the business game; there was no safety for you, unless you stood with the group that had power. If you stepped out of the reservation, the wolves would tear you to pieces in short order.
Oil! is unapologetic about the Haves versus the Have Nots. When a novel dives too deeply into politics, it risks becoming redundant and dogmatic. Unfortunately, that’s the fate suffered by Oil! I never expected Upton Sinclair, the writer of The Jungle, to be apolitical. Though I knew before I read this book that it was going to be sympathetic to the Have Nots, I expected more nuance in exploring that theme. Since Bunny’s character arc takes him from a wealthy son to a committed leftest, since that was his inner conflict, nuance is essential. That I never felt that battle inside him is the story’s greatest failure.
Politics aside, Oil! is also a chronicle of America during the first few decades of the 20th Century. This was when the automobile—and hence the fuel that powered it—grew in popularity. This was the Jazz Age when America experienced the horrors of The Great War, followed by the Roaring Twenties’ optimism. Prohibition was the law but never was abstinence the rule. Though Bunny’s eyes, we see America begin its transition from an agricultural society to an industrial one, from a rural community to an urban one. This isn’t just a coming-of-age story for Bunny; it’s also a coming-of-age story for America. This chronicle of America is the novel’s greatest success.
Sinclair began his novel in a traveling passage that felt familiar because I had seen the formula before in at least three other novels. The Big Rock Candy Mountain by William Stegner, published in 1943, begins with describing a train ride across the America West to North Dakota. William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, published in 1951, also starts with a long train trip, this one into the deep south. In 1947, Robert Penn Warren published All the King’s Men, which begins with a long car journey. The opening passage of Oil! reminded me of these other opening passages, but since Sinclair’s novel, published in 1926-1927, predates the other books, he seems to be the progenitor of this opening. It seems a particularly American opening. No doubt, novels worldwide begin with people traveling, but this mile-by-mile description of the passing landscape feels rooted in America. We are a country of vast landscapes; our fiction often requires characters to transverse those landscapes.
The road ran, smooth and flawless, precisely fourteen feet wide, the edges trimmed as if by shears, a ribbon of grey concret, rolled out over the valley by a giant hand. The ground went in long waves, a slow ascent and then a sudden dip; you climbed, and went swiftly over—but you had no fear, for you knew the magic ribbon would be there, clear of obstructions, unmarred by bump or scar, wiating the passage of inflated rubber wheels revolving seven times a second. The cold wind of morning whistled by, a storm of motion, a humming and roaring with ever-shifting overtones; but you sat snug behind a tilted wind-shield, which slid the gale up over your head.
Since petroleum continues to be the foundational commodity of our economy, Oil! feels timeless and relevant. Our society continues to debate the role we want “Big Oil” to have in its politics and cultures. The themes Sinclair introduced in Oil! are still with us, and they had grown more complicated as we debate over environmental protection and the threat of climate change. Though exploring the politics of oil and the corruption of greed was Sinclair’s purpose, the novel’s greatest strength lies in its characterization of the maturing nation.